Simpson Prosecutor Marcia Clark Takes On Fiction

April 18, 2011

Karen Grigsby Bates

Marcia Clark was a rising legal star in the Los Angeles District Attorney's office when she was assigned to the OJ Simpson trial. Clark's every move was televised in what's now referred to as "The Trial of the Century." Fifteen years later, she's still hip deep in crime, but from a different perspective — as a mystery writer. Her first novel, Guilt by Association, is being released this week, and it draws from Clark's experiences on the front lines of legal prosecution.

The Simpson case — and his acquittal — was a turning point for Clark. As the lead prosecutor on the case, she felt the jury had made up its mind early on. Charred remains from the 1992 riots following the first Rodney King trial still marred empty lots in South Los Angeles. Despite her entreaties to the jury to not even the score by acquitting Simpson of the murders of his ex wife and her friend, Clark says she saw the writing on the wall.

When the jury ruled that Simpson was not guilty, it was the end of a difficult road for Clark. "By the end of that trial, I was really physically not well... exhausted and just a mess," she tells NPR. She retreated to her home in suburban Los Angeles to recover, physically and mentally. "It took me a while to get my strength back up."

Juggling Private And Public Battles

Over the year that the Simpson drama played out, the public saw a frazzled, sometimes testy woman intent on bringing a once-beloved sports icon to justice. What they didn't see was the reason Clark looked so gaunt — she was juggling her legal duties with the primary care of her two toddler sons.

"It was kind of this crazy rubber band feeling of running to work, working as many hours as I could, and then running home so I could take care of the kids, with armloads of work I could do at home," she says. "I was always running to or from something."

The biggest challenge in her professional life eventually caused the biggest challenge in her private one, and for a while Clark joined Simpson in the headlines of the nightly entertainment news as she waged a bitter custody battle with her husband.

Clark eventually settled with her estranged second husband — they're now divorced — and moved her sons even deeper into the suburbs to reconstruct a normal life. She lectured, wrote a TV drama and has been a steady presence on television as a legal analyst.

Though Clark swore that she was done with the criminal courts after the Simpson case, it turns out that she meant only as a lawyer. She's returned to the courtroom several times in the past few years in her new endeavor as a legal thriller writer.

Trying Her Hand At Fiction

Her first mystery, Guilt by Association, features Rachel Knight, a heroine not unlike herself. Like Clark, Rachel is a DA, and a rising star in the Special Trials unit, which handles prominent, sensitive and controversial trials.

"Rachel Knight is better, smarter, cooler, and tougher than I am," Clark says. "But she's also a lot like me: she has a big mouth, she often gets in trouble. She pissed people off — especially judges — and she's not really good with authority, but she is really good at her job."

After Rachel's co-worker Jake is found dead in an extremely compromising position, Rachel makes it her duty — against all warnings of conflict of interest — to discover what really happened to him. Working with Bailey Keller, a ballsy detective who reminds Rachel of her younger self, the two women anger everyone from wealthy patricians to entrepreneurial gangbangers with their questioning.

"Not every prosecutor works the way Rachel works in the book," Clark explains. "Rachel is in Special Trials, that's a small unit that works the big cases, and they work it from the ground up with the detectives, just about from the day from when the body is found. So that's unusual — most prosecutors get the case on the way into the court room as they're picking a jury."

A Stickler For Legal Details

Clark paid special attention to getting the minutia of procedure right. "If you're going to educate the public and tell them how things happen in the courtroom, then you have a duty to tell it right — don't misinform," she says.

She also understands the need for dramatization in a supposedly realistic plot, but believes that it's important to keep your story legally accurate. "You amp things up and you speed things up, but technically you can still be legally correct. This is the big beef I have with novels as well as television shows — it actually makes for a better show when you accommodate the truth."

Early reviews from critics and mystery writers alike say Clark knows what she's talking about. For someone who had been rejected by several publishers and fired by her first agent before landing a book deal, that's especially satisfying.

Clark says her name might help get her published, but it can't carry her all the way. "If that were true, I would have gotten the other books picked up, right?" she asks, referring to her previous manuscripts.

Still, she says her name is proof that she walks the walk, and she hopes it will help enough to turn her first Rachel Knight book into a series. She's finishing the second now, and is looking forward to reading some good fiction this summer — crime fiction, of course. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.