On 9th June 1994, Los Angeles county prosecutor Marcia Clark filed for divorce from Gordon Clark, her husband of ten years and the father of her two young sons. Three days later, Nicole Brown Simpson, the ex-wife of former American football pro O. J. Simpson was brutally murdered, alongside her friend, waiter Ronald Goodman.
A well-documented media frenzy ensued. From the police discovery of a single bloody glove at the murder scene, to to the identification of celebrated NFL star O. J. as prime suspect, to that infamous car chase across the freeways of L.A.; the investigation had all the markings of neo-noir thriller movie.
In the midst of this spectacle, one woman found herself grappling with a challenge that is all too familiar for many working women –juggling a career with the responsibilities of motherhood. Marcia Clark was appointed head prosecutor in the murder case, and henceforth became a subject of media scrutiny. Commentary on Clark’s professional competency was to be expected, given the high-profile nature of the case, but the criticism facing Clark extended far beyond these parameters. The tabloids provided a decidedly gendered dissection of Clark; the subject of their ire ranged from her unfashionable hairstyle, to her childcare responsibilities, which some felt compromised her ability to effectively lead the prosecution.
Such bones of contention are dramatised in Ryan Murphy’s 2016 TV series American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson, which offers up a sympathetic portrayal of Clark in its rendering of the murder trial. The show also depicts the prosecutor’s ongoing divorce proceedings, in particular the custody battle over her two young sons.
As Bustle reports, in one episode, a prolonged custody hearing causes Clark, played by Sarah Paulson, to be slightly late to court, much to the judge’s chagrin. This sets the tone for the rest of the show, which sees Clark become “increasingly distressed and conflicted as the defense team throws curveballs that require her to pull all-nighters at the office and find last-minute childcare.”
In the episode, Clark is forced to address this dilemma in court, as Lance Ito, the presiding judge in the O. J. Simpson murder case, exasperatedly calls attention to her “child crises”, which are allegedly delaying proceedings. Clark responds to this by reprimanding Judge Ito for belittling the childcare challenges she faces as a single working mother.
Here, Bustle notes that Clark’s dialogue mirrors the prosecutor’s real-life response to Simpson’s attorney, Johnnie Cochran Jr. when he accused her of using childcare as a time-buying “ploy”.
“I’m offended as a woman, as a single parent, as a prosecutor … Some of us have child care issues and they are serious and they are paramount. Obviously, Mr. Cochran cannot understand that.”
Whilst criticising a prosecutor for allowing their personal life to interrupt their professional responsibilities may be valid, one can’t help but wonder how often a male lawyer has faced this kind of courtroom criticism. Ultimately, the issue is bigger than Clark: it is financially necessary for many primary caregivers to work, and mothers most often still bear the brunt of childcare. As with any other sector, parents working in law should not be penalised for prioritising raising a family as well as their career.
The conclusion of the O. J. Simpson murder trial is well-known: Simpson was acquitted, although he was later found liable for Goodman’s death and the battery against Brown in a civil trial. It’s impossible to know whether the outcome of initial trial would have been different if Clark’s divorce and child custody battle were kept out of the spotlight but, 21 years after the verdict, it’s heartening to see new critical attention being given to the gender dynamics that played out both in the courtroom and the press.