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Johnnie Cochran
simply the best

Johnny Cochran
I heard the news tonight and the first thing that came into my head was Joan Baez' voice singing Babe, I'm going to miss you. No, those aren't the right lyrics . . . The jukebox in my mind switched over to Tina Turner: You're simply the best. Better than all the rest. I don't know if Johnnie Cochran sang or played an instrument. Yet always when I have seen him on TV or read about him, it has lifted my spirits and got my feet tapping. Bye Bye Mr. American guy.

Most of all I'll miss sharing the planet with you, knowing you're out there with your intelligence and grace. Next I'm going to miss your purple suits.
Sheila Steele,

Famed Attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Dies at 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 cachet 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.

Long before his defense of OJ Simpson, Cochran was challenging the Los Angeles Police Department's misconduct.

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 OJ 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."

O.J. Simpson

Prosecutor Christopher Darden (far right) looks impassively on as OJ Simpson shows the extra large gloves that didn't fit.

"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 OJ. case. I think you could have given that case to a lot of talented lawyers and OJ. 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 Johnnie 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."

While the Simpson case may have been Cochran's bravura moment on the public stage, he believed that it was not his most important case. It was the long and twisted legal saga of Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt that marked for Cochran, at different points, both the nadir and the pinnacle of his career.

Authorities contended that Pratt, a former Black Panther party leader and Vietnam War veteran, robbed and shot a young white couple on a public tennis court in Santa Monica in December 1968. The woman died, but her husband survived and identified Pratt in a line-up two years after the shootings.

Cochran said his biggest disappointment was watching his client, Pratt - who now goes by the name Geronimo ji Jaga - be convicted of murder in 1972. And Cochran's greatest triumph came when a judge in Orange County reversed that conviction 25 years later.

The course of Cochran's four decade career zigzagged across the legal landscape, starting in the Los Angeles city attorney's office, where he eagerly prosecuted drunk driving cases, and ending in a private practice that earned him wealth and fame.

His law firm sprouted 14 offices outside California, devoted to personal injury law and other civil litigation. But Cochran remained rooted not just to Los Angeles but to Mid-Wilshire Boulevard, maintaining his legal headquarters there even as the street's glamour faded. For rising black professionals of his generation, a Wilshire Boulevard address was the ultimate aspiration.

The eldest child of four, Cochran was born in a charity hospital in Shreveport, La. He was, he wrote, the great-grandson of slaves and the grandson of a sharecropper. His ambitious father, Johnnie L. Cochran Sr., moved the family across the country to California and began an upward climb from working as a pipe fitter in the San Francisco Bay Area shipyards to selling insurance for Golden State Mutual, the state's leading black-owned insurance company.

The family settled in Los Angeles in 1949. There, Cochran's father ran an insurance district office, bought a house in a well-tended neighborhood on West 28th Street, and took his family to the Second Baptist Church.

Like other members of the mid-century's burgeoning black middle class in America, the senior Cochran and his wife, Hattie, expected much of themselves and more of their children. His father stressed education and working hard "to reach our fullest potential," Cochran wrote in "A Lawyer's Life." "And he seemed to think our fullest potential was always a little fuller than we did."

Cochran grew up wanting to be a lawyer, he surmises, because he loved to debate, a skill he honed at the dinner table and at Los Angeles High School. Dazzled by the natty attire of many classmates and their late-model convertibles, Cochran began developing a taste for stylish clothing and a love of fine cars.

After graduating from UCLA, Cochran earned a law degree from Loyola Marymount University in 1962. The summer after his first year in law school, he married Barbara Berry.

The couple eventually had two girls - Melodie and Tiffany - before the marriage ended in divorce. He later had a relationship with Patricia Sikora, who bore him his only son, Jonathan, now a California Highway Patrol officer - something Cochran loves reminding critics who say he hates all police.

As a college-age man, Cochran wrestled with his feelings about a white world that saw him as black before they saw him as anything else, a concept of duality that he said the writer and black liberationist W.E.B. DuBois best described as "two-ness."

"The concept of 'two-ness' is one that has eternally intrigued me," he wrote in "Journey to Justice," his first memoir. "We were never viewed as just teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and writers. We were perceived as black teachers, black doctors, black lawyers, black scientists and black writers."

But that distinction was inescapable as he made his way in Los Angeles. In the fall of 1961, during his last year in law school, he became the first black law clerk in the office of the city attorney. In early 1963, he became a deputy city attorney.

He enjoyed trial work but he grew uncomfortable prosecuting people - usually black men - who had allegedly resisted arrest. And he grew wary of the police, because many of those people showed signs of severe beating.

"By the mid-1960s, the problem of unchecked police misconduct was the defining issue among black Angelenos of every social class," he wrote in "Journey to Justice."

He left the city attorney's office in 1965 for private practice and kept busy defending the kind of people he once prosecuted.

It was a case of alleged police misconduct in May 1966 that first thrust Cochran into the spotlight. Deadwyler, speeding his pregnant wife to the hospital, was pulled over by police, then shot dead. The officer who stopped him said later he had reached into the car to grab the ignition key and the car lurched forward causing the gun to discharge accidentally.

The shooting outraged a city still emotionally smoldering from the Watts riots less than a year earlier. Cochran represented Deadwyler's widow, Barbara, at a coroner's inquest. As TV cameras rolled, viewers saw the deputy DA consulting with Cochran and often prefacing questions to witnesses with "Mr. Cochran wants to know" A majority of jurors found the shooting of Deadwyler accidental, but Cochran's presence offered an indelible image of a black attorney as an important player.

"If you talk to African American professionals between 40 and 50, it was a powerful moment when they were young," said Maddox, who was one of those youngsters.

In the two decades after the Deadwyler inquest, Cochran took on other cases that challenged L.A. juries and police policies.

But he was devastated when Pratt was convicted in July 1972 of murder. Although the husband of Caroline Olsen, the murdered woman, had identified Pratt as the assailant and a former Black Panther rival, Julius Butler, had testified against Pratt, Cochran was confident the system would exonerate his client.

Only years later would Cochran learn that Butler - the witness against Pratt - had been an informant for the government, including the district attorney's office. Butler had denied that on the stand. If Cochran had known at the time, it would have been a different case.

"I had learned that prosecutors and law enforcement officials, convinced of their own righteousness, would do anything to make the system yield the 'right result,' " he wrote.

Years later, Cochran would suggest that the LAPD did just that to make their case against Simpson - and others would accuse Cochran of using similar methods to defend Simpson.

Cochran continued to represent the families of people he believed to be victims of police abuse and was able to extract from the city of Los Angeles the first cash settlement - $25,000 - in a wrongful death suit stemming from a police shooting.

In 1978, L.A. County Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp tapped him to be assistant district attorney, the No. 3 position in the office, and suggested he change the system from the inside. Cochran left his $300,000 a year practice for the $49,000 salaried job, becoming the first African American to hold it.

But change came slowly. He lost a debate with his bosses over filing manslaughter charges against police officers who killed Eula Love, a black woman, after police said she threatened them with a knife. The police had been called to her home after Love, overdue on her gas bill, allegedly used a shovel to shoo away gas company employees.

Later, Cochran and Gil Garcetti, then a deputy district attorney, changed the way prosecutors investigated police shootings. They initiated the policy of rolling out a prosecutor and a district attorney's investigator to the scene of every police shooting, a move designed to make the investigation impartial. No longer would the government rely entirely on police investigations of their own shootings.

Cochran left the DA's office in 1981 and soon took on another case that would be a benchmark for the Los Angeles area. After a traffic stop, Ron Settles, a Cal State Long Beach football player, was booked by police in Signal Hill for resisting arrest, possession of cocaine, and assault on a police officer. However, the validity of the charges would never be tested in court - a few hours later, just before his bail was posted, Settles was found dead in his cell. Police said he apparently hung himself.

Cochran and attorney Mike Mitchell, representing Settles' parents at the coroner's inquest, contended that the athlete died as a result of a police chokehold. Although the jury never specified how he was killed, they did issue a majority verdict that Settles had not killed himself but "died at the hands of another."

Later, in the city of Los Angeles, Cochran was part of a group that successfully argued before the Police Commission that the bar-arm chokehold be banned.

In the 1980s, Cochran worked on burnishing his reputation as a premier attorney and player in Los Angeles. Mayor Tom Bradley, his mentor, and fellow Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brother, appointed him to the powerful Los Angeles Airport Commission, which oversaw expansion and the awarding of contracts to run the airport.

And in court, he was winning millions of dollars in awards for victims injured or killed by the police. Most notably, he and law partner Eric Ferrer won a $9.4M judgment for Patty Diaz, a 13-year-old Latina who was sexually assaulted in her home by an LAPD officer. At the time it was the largest award resulting from LAPD misconduct granted by a trial jury, although the plaintiff later agreed to a reduced award of $4.6M.

In the middle of his rise as an attorney, his personal life took a new turn. As an airport commissioner, he was attending a 1981 conference when he met Dale Mason, an executive for an Atlanta-based concessionaire. Cochran and Mason, 13 years his junior, were married at the Bel-Air Hotel in 1985.

Mason survives him, as does his son, Jonathan Cochran; daughters, Tiffany Cochran Edwards and Melodie; and sisters Pearl Baker and Martha Jean Sherrard.

Cochran also cultivated a clientele of celebrities in trouble. In 1993, he represented pop superstar Michael Jackson during his first battle against accusations of sexual molestation. A year later, Simpson called Cochran from jail, begging him to join his defense team.

After his Simpson trial victory, there was hardly a prominent civil rights or police abuse case that he was not connected to in some way. But his impact was diluted by the sheer volume of what he undertook. He jetted between coasts, tried his hand at co-hosting a syndicated television legal show, and dipped in and out of numerous cases.

"At any given time, I am actively involved in about 50 different cases," he wrote in "A Lawyer's Life." That didn't always sit well with clients. The mother of Amidou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant who was gunned down by police in 1999 in the Bronx, stirring a national outrage, had retained Cochran to represent her, but fired him when she felt he didn't have enough time for her.

"Maybe I did a few too many cases," he mused in a September 2004 phone interview. "I handled a lot, and they were real tough cases."

Cochran gave up the stressful and time-consuming practice of criminal law after successfully defending rap music mogul Sean Combs on weapons charges in New York in 2000.

He wanted to concentrate instead on other issues. Had he not become ill at the beginning of 2004, he would have helped prepare a lawsuit testing whether reparations will be paid for slavery in this country.

But one case he stayed involved with for more than two decades was that of Pratt. "Some people would say that Cochran abandoned the case. I know better," said Hanlon, who spent 23 years continuously working the case. "He was always there when I needed to talk to him."

Not only did Cochran lend his expertise when they finally got a hearing on whether Pratt's conviction should be overturned, he also lent his credit card to the effort. "We were broke," said Hanlon.

Because the court hearing was transferred from Los Angeles to the Orange County courtroom of a conservative judge, Cochran's presence was key. "I was a known radical," said Hanlon. "He brought a credibility to the courtroom that I couldn't bring.

Pratt's murder conviction was overturned in May 1997, and he was freed after 27 years behind bars. The Los Angeles district attorney declined to retry him. Cochran helped Pratt secure a $4.5M settlement of a false imprisonment lawsuit.

"There are so many cases I believe in," said Cochran in a 2004 phone interview. "Probably the biggest was Pratt. Just getting him free - I remember that day down in Orange County, that was probably the happiest day for me in my whole career."