From the Los Angeles Times
Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., the masterful attorney who gained prominence as an early advocate for victims of police abuse, then achieved worldwide fame for successfully defending football star O.J. Simpson on murder charges, died this afternoon. He was 67.
Cochran died at his home in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles of an inoperable brain tumor, according to his brother-in-law Bill Baker. His wife and his two sisters were with him at the time of his death.
Cochran, his family and colleagues were secretive about his illness to protect the attorney’s privacy as well as the network of Cochran law offices that largely draw their cache from his presence. But Cochran confirmed in a Sept. 2004 interview with The Times that he was being treated by the eminent neurosurgeon Keith Black at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
From the 1960s on, when he represented the widow of Leonard Deadwyler, a black motorist killed during a police stop in Los Angeles, Cochran took police abuse to court. He won historic financial settlements and helped bring about lasting changes in police procedure.
His clients weren’t always black — he unsuccessfully represented Reginald Denny, the white trucker beaten by a mob during the 1991 riots that followed the verdicts of not guilty in the trial of police officers charged with assaulting Rodney King. Instead of arguing, as he often did, that police had been brutal on the job, Cochran contended that the trucker’s civil rights had been violated because police didn’t do their jobs when they withdrew from a South Los Angeles intersection of Florence and Normandie, where rioting was fierce and Denny was beaten.
By the time Simpson was accused of murder in 1994, Cochran was “larger than life” in the city’s black community, said Kerman Maddox, a political consultant and longtime Los Angeles resident. After Simpson, that profile would expand, earning him new admirers as well as new detractors who considered him a racially polarizing force.
His successful defense of Simpson against charges of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman, a waiter and friend of Nicole’s, vaulted him to the rank of celebrity, beseeched by autograph-seekers and parodied on “Saturday Night Live” and “Seinfeld.”
His name was invoked by movie characters, one of whom boasted in the 1997 film “Jackie Brown” that his lawyer was so good, “he’s my own personal Johnnie Cochran.” Ever aware of his public image, he delighted in the attention and even played along, showing up in the occasional movie or TV show in a cameo role as himself.
Resplendently tailored and silky-voiced, clever and genteel, Cochran came to epitomize the formidable litigator, sought after by the famous and wealthy, the obscure and struggling, all believing they were victims of the system in one way or another.
He could figure out how to connect with any jury, and in his most famous case, the Simpson trial, he delivered to the jurors an eloquent, even lilting closing argument. He famously cast doubt on the prosecution’s theory of the case saying, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” The line referred to Cochran’s overall assessment of the prosecution’s evidence, but it most evoked the moment during the trial when Simpson appeared to struggle to put on what were presumed to be the murderer’s bloody gloves — one of which was found at the murder scene, the other outside Simpson’s house.
As a result, the line is often quoted as “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”-an adaptation that even Cochran made in his 2002 book, “A Lawyer’s Life.”
“He has a real gift for communicating with people,” Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University law professor who offered analysis of the Simpson trial, said in late 2004. “Obviously you saw that in the O.J. case.… I think you could have given that case to a lot of talented lawyers and O.J. would have been convicted.”
Cochran inspired law students and attained a level of stardom rare for a lawyer and even rarer for a black lawyer. One of his most important legacies was the transforming effect of a black man attaining that level of success.
“Clients of all races are now no longer hesitant to retain black lawyers to represent them in significant cases,” said Winston Kevin McKesson, a black criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles. “That was not the case 25 or 30 years ago. We couldn’t even get African Americans in our community to trust us. He’s a historic figure.”
However, the Simpson criminal trial defined Cochran’s career for better and for worse. While it made him a household name and offered him access to virtually every high-profile criminal case, it also changed his life “drastically and forever,” he wrote in “A Lawyer’s Life.” “It obscured everything I had done previously.”
More galling and perplexing to him was the criticism that rained down after the Simpson verdicts. Though many legal experts marveled at Cochran’s skill, a parade of critics — TV pundits and newspaper columnists, California’s then governor, the Republican Pete Wilson, and even his own co-counsel, Robert Shapiro — decried a legal strategy that put the competence and character of the Los Angeles Police Department on trial.
“Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck,” Shapiro said in a national TV interview after Simpson was acquitted by a jury of nine African Americans, two whites and one Latino. (All but two were women.)
During the trial, Cochran and the rest of the defense team excoriated criminalists for sloppy work that compromised blood evidence and claimed that police officers prejudged Simpson. Cochran and his “Dream Team”, as the defense attorneys were known, revealed that police Detective Mark Fuhrman, who collected key evidence in the case, had a history of making racist remarks.
Everything about the Simpson case came to personify the excess of Los Angeles. A combustible combination of murder, sex and race, the extravagantly lengthy trial was carried live on television, making it arguably the first high-profile reality TV show.
When it was finally over, the jury acquitted Simpson, but many in the public did not. A Times poll indicated that half the American public disagreed with the verdict. And the majority believed the defense used the issue of race inappropriately to help free a defendant whose controversial saga began unfolding when he fled police in a nationally televised slow-speed freeway chase.
Chemerinsky said Cochran did nothing more than discharge his duty as a zealous advocate in defending Simpson. “I think Johnnie Cochran did a superb job,” Chemerinsky said. “He ultimately put the LAPD and the racism of the LAPD on trial, and that worked with that jury.”
Cochran spent two post-trial memoirs trying to dispel the criticism.
“The charge that I could convince black jurors to vote to acquit a man they believed to be guilty of two murders because he is black is an insult to all African Americans,” he wrote in “A Lawyer’s Life.”
It wasn’t, Cochran contended, that he believed the police had conspired to frame Simpson. It was more that their racism led them to a “rush to judgment” and a willingness to “adjust the physical evidence slightly,” he wrote.
“He got an awful rap in the white community after the Simpson trial,” said Stuart Hanlon, a white attorney who was a longtime criminal defense collaborator with Cochran. “All he did was do a great job as a lawyer — which is what we’re supposed to do — and beat some inept prosecutor. For him to get vilified for it just shows the racism in our community. I really think if OJ’s lawyer had been white, that wouldn’t have happened.… If I had done that trial and won, no one would hate me.”
Ironically, up to that time, Cochran had spent most of his life not as a racial polarizing force but as the integrator, the black man gliding easily through white conference rooms, dinner parties, and neighborhoods.
In a September 2004 phone interview with the Times, Cochran said, he still would have taken the case knowing it would change his life. “I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Cochran continued to support Simpson’s version of his activities the night his former wife and Goldman were found knifed to death outside her Brentwood townhouse.
“I still believe he’s innocent of those charges,” Cochran said in the September 2004 interview. “Even after all this time.”