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The Simpson Trial revisited: Marcia Clark remains 'Without a Doubt' (Profile)

Marcia Clark's 'Without a Doubt' was published by Viking in 1997.
www.marciaclarkbooks.com

On June 12th, 1994, Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman were murdered in Brentwood, California. Ms. Brown’s ex-husband, former NFL star and celebrity personality, O.J. Simpson, was arrested for the crimes and tried in a Los Angeles courtroom—an event that came to be known as the Trial of the Century. Though acquitted in the criminal proceedings, Simpson was found liable in a civil judgment and is currently imprisoned in Nevada on unrelated charges. Twenty years have passed, and yet public debate—not only regarding Simpson’s innocence or guilt but the influences of race, fame, and media (among other factors) on justice—continues …

***

We, the jury in the above-entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder upon Nicole Brown Simpson, a human being …

Marcia Clark, co-lead prosecutor in what came to be known as the “Trial of the Century,” remained stoic as the verdict was read, even as spontaneous displays of emotion erupted around her. Simpson, looking relieved, mouthed “thank you” to the jury as defense attorney Johnnie Cochran pumped his fist and let out a guttural moan of triumph. Kim Goldman, sister of victim Ron Goldman, dissolved into sobs that could be heard throughout the courtroom—and across the country, thanks to the live video feed that had broadcast the criminal proceedings gavel to gavel. Dominick Dunne, journalist for Vanity Fair and himself the father of a murdered child, sat with his mouth gaping in an “O” of surprise.

The sequestered jury, after hearing nine months of testimony—including damning DNA evidence of a blood trail that led from the crime scene to Simpson’s very bedroom—took less than four hours to reach a consensus, and allegedly showed up to deliberate with bags packed.

“I have to say right from the start everybody knew—and it was even widely talked about in the DA’s office—that we weren’t going to win the case,” Clark remembers. “The prediction was largely that we would hang the jury, we would retry it, we would hang it again, and then it would get dismissed.”

Though Clark and her colleagues were initially hailed as the victors by the news media once word of a verdict spread—after all, how could such a quick judgment be anything other than guilty?—they were scapegoated relentlessly after the jury’s decision was read aloud. They put on too much evidence, one pundit would say, and another would immediately counter with, they didn’t put on enough. They should have introduced the Bronco chase, the police interrogation. They shouldn’t have allowed Simpson to try on the gloves. It was endless.

Rather than responding to her critics, Clark took a leave of absence from the DA’s office (officially resigning in 1997)—where she had worked for fourteen years, winning convictions in nineteen of twenty previous homicide cases, and had been the first woman named to the elite Special Trials Unit—and slipped into a self-described “malaise” that only began to lift after publishing her memoir about the trial and joining in the public discourse.

That book, Without a Doubt, earned Clark a hefty advance—and another round of criticism for “cashing in” on a tragedy. “I had some serious misgivings initially because I wanted to step out of the limelight,” she recalls. “I was really, really ready to be left alone … and I thought, ‘If this is something that is going to prolong it, then maybe it’s something I don’t need to do.’” Still, with her future at the DA’s office hanging in the balance and two young sons to support as a single mother, it was an opportunity that could not be passed up—particularly given the fact that her notoriety was not going away, no matter how fervently she wished otherwise.

“That was … the biggest downside,” says Clark. “But even so, it was outweighed by a desire to make sure that somebody who was really on the inside of the case and who really knew it from start to finish [contributed]—because I was the only one who literally picked up the case the day they found the bodies and stayed with it all the way to the very bitter end. And I thought, ‘If I don’t write this book, no one will know the truth.’” (“Dream Team” alum Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, and Alan Dershowitz all published books following the verdict, though none was involved with the case from its inception. Also, defense attorneys are bound by privilege, which limits the scope of their disclosure.)

Once she signed on the dotted line, Clark was charged with the task of selecting her co-writer. She ultimately chose Teresa Carpenter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author (Missing Beauty and Mob Girl). The two began their partnership by engaging in long conversations, which Carpenter would tape record.

“And then what she would do is say, ‘Now, we’re gonna write about the Bronco chase. Go …’” Clark recalls. “And so I would write. I wrote it chronologically and with as much dialogue as I could remember, and then she would take a pass at it and make it good (laughs) … and so it’s not an ‘as-told-to.’ I really did write and she really did re-write.”

It was that process that brought forth Clark’s distinct voice.

“That was the goal, that was the intention right from the start, and it really is the challenge of the collaborator to make sure that happens. It’s no easy thing.” The recordings proved invaluable, and Clark’s personality continued to emerge as the narrative took shape. “That is her gift,” she says of Carpenter. “She was able to do that.”

Clark’s unflinching candor was not diminished for the purposes of the book.

“It’s always a concern when you know that you’re saying something that’s going to be perceived as controversial, that people are going to have strong opinions on one way or another,” she says. (Indeed, many were surprised by the bluntness with which she called people out for their questionable antics—Simpson, Cochran, Judge Lance Ito, and the jury among them.) “But there’s no point in writing a book like that otherwise … I’m not just some theorist or political scientist sitting on the outside and analyzing someone else’s experience … I’m a lawyer; I was that lawyer.”

Though Clark had few qualms about offering informed opinions regarding the trial proceedings—and did not shy away from critiquing her own performance (not appealing Ito’s ruling to allow the defense to present witnesses who would testify to Mark Fuhrman’s alleged racism remains one of her deepest regrets)—she was less keen on including details about her life outside the courtroom.

“You know, I didn’t want to write anything about myself personally and I would have been happy to leave that out,” she recalls, in reference to subjects such as her two divorces, a very public custody dispute, and a tabloid scandal. But, from a publisher’s point of view, those were all topics that had piqued public interest. “And so I did [write about them] … but I didn’t want to.”

Given Clark’s painstaking step-by-step reevaluation of the case and her and Carpenter’s deliberate writing style, publication was delayed until May of 1997. (To give you a point of reference, Clark’s prologue is dated April 30, 1996—a full month after the release of colleague Christopher Darden’s book, In Contempt.) “It did come out pretty late in the game,” she admits. “It was more important for us to do a great job than a fast job.”

Despite the delay, Without a Doubt quickly rose to #1 on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, LA Times and Publishers Weekly bestsellers lists.

Regardless of the book’s success, it did not bring closure. “It did not feel cathartic at the time. I was hoping that it would be. And people promised me that it would be,” Clark offers. “It did take a certain amount of time to get through an event that traumatic … I think that the case got coopted by issues that had nothing to do with the murders … almost from the moment that the case started to be publicized. It became about celebrity and it became about race and everything else … took a backseat. Especially justice. You don’t overcome that in a day, a week, a month, even a year. And certainly by the time I finished writing the book I was not over it. Maybe I’ll never be over it.”

The book did allow Clark to expound upon some serious issues of relevance beyond the scope of the trial. “There were legitimate issues in terms of domestic violence and the way we view such cases, the way we have been dismissive in the past of these kinds of things—having these issues swept under the rug as just a family affair,” she reflects, in regard to Simpson’s history of domestic abuse. “It went to the very motive of the case.”

Additionally, the trial’s circus-like atmosphere raised questions about journalistic ethics and the ramifications of cameras in the courtroom. “There is so much misinformation and so much sensationalism and there’s very little effort to make sure that people are getting accurate information about what’s happening in the courtroom and why. Because these cases, these kinds of celebrity trials, become a staple we always run the risk that … all the hoopla surrounding the cases can bury the issues and steer people’s focus away from what really matters, which is … Is there evidence? Is there proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a defendant’s guilt? And the worry is that the victim, the loss, the tragedy, and, most important, the evidence, gets lost in the process.”

Or, in other words, trials need protecting.

“There is no such thing as a bulletproof case … But when you have a case of such overwhelming evidence, judges have a tendency to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to shave every decision in favor of the defense because then I will make the case bulletproof on appeal.’ … There is no case that can withstand that kind of mangling from the bench. That is something that, especially in high profile cases, we really need to be guarding against.”

In final analysis, Clark says, “I achieved what I wanted to achieve in terms of putting something out there that I know to be true.”

Following the release of Without a Doubt, Clark pursued a variety of endeavors while practicing appellate law—television/radio host, legal commentator, Special Correspondent for Entertainment Tonight (which, in an ironic twist of fate, found her covering Simpson’s Las Vegas trial), online columnist, and script writer among them—before trying her hand at writing crime fiction.

After a false start or two, protagonist Rachel Knight—a feisty prosecutor in the Special Trials Unit of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office (sound familiar?)—emerged, winning fans among genre superstars like Joseph Finder, who called the character “smart, funny, and just about fearless in her pursuit of justice and a good martini.” The first book, Guilt by Association (2011), was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and was nominated for a Nero (Wolfe) Award; Guilt by Degrees (2012) and Killer Ambition (2013) followed. Clark’s fourth novel to feature Knight and friends, The Competition (Mulholland Books), will be published this July; Booklist recently awarded the title a starred review.

Clark, who grew up on Nancy Drew and has carried on a lifelong love affair with detective novels, credits the process of writing Without a Doubt for rekindling her desire to write fiction—an endeavor that she postponed for more than a decade. It was only after she began collaborating on scripts for Lifetime’s drama For the People that she found the confidence to embark on this path.

“I wanted to recreate the world … of a prosecutor without all this high profile craziness,” she muses. “The world that is more true of the DA’s office, where you really get to do your job and feel good about doing the right thing.”

In addition to this new career, time has afforded Clark a broader perspective on the Simpson case—and, more specifically, the jury’s verdict.

“The thing that I do see differently is the mindset that the jury brought to the trial,” she reveals. “Minorities can have a different view of authority and the police than the majority, and that’s based on life experience. There’s a certain degree of mistrust and skepticism and suspicion that they bring to the table that is reflective of those experiences.”

Such experiences, Clark believes, allowed theories including the notion that Mark Fuhrman planted the bloody glove at Simpson’s Rockingham estate, to gain traction with the jury.

“There was no opportunity for Fuhrman to plant the glove,” Clark contends. “And I’m not saying that I’m a big fan of Mark Fuhrman. As you know, I’m very much not, but he couldn’t have done what they [the defense] said he did. And if that’s true, then Simpson’s guilty, and that’s just as simple as that … But I think I understand better now why they [the jury] could basically dismiss all that evidence and say, ‘I don’t trust you; I don’t trust the messenger.’ It’s exactly what Johnnie said …”

Cochran, who famously proclaimed “You give me one black juror and I will hang this jury” on live television before joining Simpson’s defense team, shrewdly summoned those intrinsic misgivings when calling upon the jury to acquit his client.

“I think what I failed to see then, what I couldn’t appreciate then, was how true it was. How far, how deep that distrust, that suspicion, really went. That even in the face of all the evidence, that even in the face of the illogic of the arguments that he [Cochran] was asking the jury to buy, he could stand up there and absolutely persuade them that you cannot trust the messenger so you cannot trust the message … He said, ‘Send us a message.’ And that’s what they did.”

While Clark may have a better understanding of the verdict, that doesn’t mean she condones it—a timely sentiment, given that this June 12th marks the passage of twenty years since Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman were slain. “It was such a searingly horrible tragedy. Two people were brutally murdered and no justice was found for them.”