With the attention given the Ron Sullivan debacle at being punished by the unduly passionate children of Harvard, former OJ prosecutor Chris Darden’s dilemma has largely gone unnoticed. It’s surprising, since it carries all the usual sexy indicators: a murdered celebrity, a well-known lawyer and death threats. Yet, it has remained largely in the shadows. And it shouldn’t.
The threatening phone calls to Chris Darden’s law office began almost immediately. The messages on Instagram and Facebook trickled in soon after, some from anonymous accounts.
One caller left a voicemail, Darden recalled, saying he hoped someone would walk up behind the attorney and shoot him in the head.
“And I’m a shooter,” the voice said.
Darden is now a defense lawyer, and being threatened by random people when working on a high-profile case is nothing new in the criminal defense world. There are angry people out there. Crazy people. They can’t control their impulses and feel compelled to let you know it. As the LA Times headline says, “it comes with the territory.”
In Darden’s situation, however, the concern is somewhat different.
This time, though, the defendant was Eric Holder, the man accused of gunning down the influential rapper and civic hero Nipsey Hussle in an attack that reverberated far beyond his South Los Angeles neighborhood. The nasty messages, which appeared to come from as far away as Alabama and Idaho, continued for a month, until Darden withdrew from the case earlier this month, he said.
This time, Darden was labeled a “race traitor” for defending the man accused of murdering Nipsey Hussle. It’s no longer just the outlier nutjob screaming at the sky, mobs getting worked up, imploring each other to let Darden know how they feel about his defending this evil, if presumptively innocent, person. And they did, all because Darden “chose” to defend a person accused of murder, and the victim was someone adored. That’s not allowed.
Darden said he did not report the threats to him and his family to law enforcement, but beefed up security around his home.
“We already know you’re not safe at school, you’re not safe in the office, you’re not safe at the university — you’re not safe in front of the courthouse either,” Darden said. “It’s something that’s always in the back of your mind, sort of nagging you a little bit.”
He felt the outrage over him taking on the case is an assault on Holder’s 6th Amendment right to counsel.
In Sullivan’s case, apologists built a pretextual series of rationalizations to cover over the obvious problem, that he was defending the dreaded Harvey Weinstein and the children would have none of it. But in Darden’s case, there are no excuses to be found. By threatening him, his home, his family, for doing the job of a criminal defense lawyer and providing an accused’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel, he came under threat, under attack.
“Manson gets a lawyer, Ted Bundy gets a lawyer. But Eric Holder, he don’t get a lawyer,” Darden said. “Thousands of people are advocating the denial of this guy’s 6th Amendment right, with mob mentality deciding who gets a lawyer and who doesn’t.”
It’s a curiosity in this time of loved and hated populism that mobs that coalesce around an issue, in this case a tragedy, like Nipsey Hussle’s death, believe that they are entitled to a vote as to who is worthy of constitutional rights, or more particularly, who deserves to be defended, and by whom.
It’s not to say that lawyers weren’t threatened long before the internets made it easy for mobs to form, but where it was once a lone rabid wolf, it’s now thousands of them, and many as dangerous as the craziest, as worked up by the overheated hatred of the ones who make noise but would never actually get off the couch. What do you do when the threat is real?
[Alabama criminal defense lawyer Charles Salvagio] and L.A. attorney Thomas Mesereau said they won an acquittal of a homeless black man in the killing of a white woman after a racially charged trial in 2001. During a radio interview about the case, someone called in “and said I was going to get mine,” Salvagio said.
The lawyer called up a local TV news reporter for a segment that showed him loading his pistol.
“I said, ‘I’m home right now, you know where I’m at, come on,’” Salvagio said, with a laugh. “That was the only way I knew how to deal with it.”
But Los Angeles isn’t Alabama, and Darden may not be quite so ready to pull the trigger. Instead, Darden ultimately decided to withdraw from the representation of Holder.
He’s not convinced his decision to withdraw was the right one, but said the focus in Holder’s case shouldn’t be on his attorney.
“If anything, threats make me want to stay more,” he said. “As a lawyer, when you are defending someone, you have to look and see and know whether or not defending them is best thing for them.”
Darden could have stayed, both to “prove” his own toughness and to tell the mob that he would not forsake a defendant’s right to counsel no matter how much they hated the accused. The problem with doing so is that both relate to the lawyer, not the defendant. It’s always about the client, and Darden, in the exercise of discretion, decided that the best thing for Holder was for him to withdraw.
The “Threatener’s Veto” won. Again. And now that the mob has seen how its threats can influence a lawyer’s decision to defend the hated, can the “Threatener’s Veto” be stopped? Will it go away, or will this just empower the mob to be even more threatening when the defendant is despised?