FOR THE DEFENSE : JOHNNIE COCHRAN’S WHOLE CAREER HAS BEEN A PRELUDE TO WHAT IS HAPPENING IN COURTROOM 103
Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. hangs up from Orenthal James Simpson’s regular Saturday afternoon call from jail. His voice is fatherly. “We just talk. Juice will undoubtedly call once or twice again tonight. Juice is lonely.” Cochran’s round, pleasant face saddens behind oversized glasses anchored to a 24-karat gold band. He gazes out his office window. “Juice is lonely...all by himself.”
His eyes flick my way for reaction. Vintage Cochran before a jury he must win over.
“Doesn’t O.J. also call Bob Shapiro?” I tease.
“Yes,” Cochran allows, suppressing a grin. “But Juice calls me the most.”
Today’s call, says Cochran, is about the 500th from Simpson since his arrest June 17 in the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. The first call came the weekend after the arrest. “I was out. My answering service said: ‘Mr. O.J. Simpson called seven or eight times and wants you to represent him.’ ”
Cochran was intrigued. Simpson was already represented by attorney Robert L. Shapiro. Cochran and the football star had been casual friends for years. “We used to bump into each other at Raider games.” But there was more than friendship involved when Simpson phoned: In the opinion of Cochran’s peers, there is no better trial attorney in Los Angeles, and over the years, his firm has become a leading sanctuary for the city’s black citizenry, rich or poor, representing everyone from pop singer Michael Jackson, who was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy, to an elderly African American couple who were awarded $2.2 million after Los Angeles police officers shot the husband and arrested the wife.
Still, Cochran says he had doubts about taking the Simpson case. “I immediately called Bob Shapiro,” he says. “We agreed if I came in it wouldn’t be until after the preliminary hearing. And if I go down to that jail now, it will cause all kinds of rumors about me coming in the case.”
Simpson persisted in leaving messages for Cochran, but it was three weeks before they spoke. “I was in Chicago at an NAACP convention in early July. Juice started calling me there eight or nine times. I talked to him.” Simpson was begging: “ ‘I need your help! I need your help!’ ” From then on, Cochran and Simpson talked almost daily.
Cochran continued to turn Simpson down. Why he was reluctant and why he eventually accepted the case, though, depends on which Johnnie Cochran you believe.
There’s the cool public version: “I was enjoying what I was doing as an NBC commentator (on the trial). I was worried about what Michael Jackson thought. He was a client that demanded your attention, your loyalty. I also was uncomfortable about representing a friend, a guy I knew, accused of murder--double murder.”
Then there’s the calculating account, told by friends, that Cochran himself never disputes: “Once Johnnie saw how big the case became, he wanted it,” says one associate. “Also, community pressure built. One hero’s got to help another hero.” Another friend quips: “Johnnie would have taken the case for nothing.” And by Cochran’s own admission: “There was some strategy in (waiting). there are egos. I was--I am mindful of Shapiro.”
Finally, there’s the private ordeal, recounted by Cochran’s minister and friend, the Rev. William S. Epps, pastor of the Second Baptist Church: A month has passed since Simpson’s first call, and Cochran has agreed to defend him for a flat fee of $500,000. ( If the case drags on, Cochran will receive more.) Cochran, though, still has misgivings and has asked for Epps’ guidance. Clutching his pastor’s hands in the shadowy gloom of the vestibule, three stained-glass images of Jesus providing the only light, Cochran whispered: “I have trepidation. Pray for me to make the right choice in taking this case.” Epps squeezed Cochran’s hands tighter. “Johnnie wanted to be connected spiritually,” he says. “I said out loud: ‘Lord, help Johnnie Cochran to use his skills for your glory. Settle his doubts and fears....’ ”
Despite their contradictions, each version of how Cochran became Simpson’s trial attorney only enhances the lawyer’s image as a public figure few know completely. This man, born in the South, became one of the city’s preeminent attorneys not only because of his success in the courtroom but also because of his strong connections to former Mayor Tom Bradley and other politicians. People who know Cochran say he is charming, but not always easy to read. Even today, it is possible to unearth startling aspects about his life.
During our interviews, Cochran’s voice and demeanor change at the tone and thrust of each question. He flits from wheedling to pathos, gravity to whimsy, sincerity to simpering. He chuckles and grins at the hint of humor. He rolls his eyes when an answer might embarrass him. When pressured to comment on the sins of others, he silently agrees with a nod and look of disgust. If forced to criticize openly, he’s never sarcastic or snide. Throughout, he displays a candor that in itself is devilishly disarming.
The ribbon on the Cochran package is his sometimes dapper, sometimes peacockish courtroom ensemble. Cochran has been known to wear cream, purple or lavender hand-tailored suits that cost up to $2,000, and he has a preference for custom-made shirts that range from $125 to $400.
Some dismiss Cochran as a consummate actor; others say his charm is genuine. Regardless, his effect upon a jury seems to be magical. “Johnnie Cochran is the most perfect attorney in the world for O.J. Simpson,” says Ira Reiner, the former district attorney. Even Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who heads the prosecution against Simpson, can’t help but praise the man who might determine his political future: “The smartest thing O.J. Simpson ever did was hire Johnnie Cochran.”
WORKERS ARE HUSTLING TO FINISH SIX NEW OFFICES AT COCHRAN’S LAW firm on Wilshire Boulevard. He opened the firm with one attorney in 1981. Now his all-minority staff number more than 20, among them 10 attorneys, including partner Carl E. Douglas, who has just been named “Trial Attorney of the Year” by the John M. Langston Bar Assn. The door of the firm reads: “The Law Offices of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.” The other lawyers are listed in smaller type. (Cochran winces when that is pointed out. “Hey, I’m changing that. I plan to change that.”) The decor--glass and chrome, various shades of black, white and gray--speaks in hushed tones of this firm’s success.
Last year, the firm billed more than $5 million to clients such as the Automobile Club of Southern California, the Atlantic Richfield Co., the L.A. County Transportation Commission and USC. Although the bulk of the firm’s work consists of lawsuits against local police agencies on behalf of ordinary citizens, its public reputation has come from representing such figures as actor Todd Bridges (acquitted of attempted murder and attempted voluntary manslaughter, former football star Jim Brown (rape charges were dismissed), rap singer Tupac Shakur (accused of assault) and truck driver Reginald O. Denny (in his civil suit against the LAPD).
“We work Saturdays,” Cochran says. “The new lawyers that come in here will say: ‘God, we can’t believe you work so hard.’ People say that I am really driven. I am. I’m still doing far too much. People ask: ‘Why are you here on Saturday and Sunday?’ Because I still love it. I wanna do it. I have to do it. If anything frightens me, it’s failure.”
From the time he graduated from Loyola Law School in 1962, Cochran set out to master the Los Angeles legal system by working both sides of the street. He spent two years in the city attorney’s office (1963-65) and two years as the No. 3 lawyer in the district attorney’s office (1978-80), the first African American to hold that position. But most of Cochran’s career has been in private practice, taking on some of the thorniest, most controversial cases in the city.
Cochran’s first big case established the style and direction of his career. In 1966, he represented the wife of Leonard Deadwyler, a young black man shot and killed by a Los Angeles police officer at the end of a 90 m.p.h. chase. Drunk but unarmed, Deadwyler thought his pregnant wife was in labor (it turned out that she was suffering from kidney pains) and was rushing her to the hospital. It took place nine months after the Watts riots, and politicians and police feared the worst. Los Angeles authorities made an unprecedented decision to televise the coroner’s inquest and to allow Cochran, as the attorney for the victim’s family, to interrogate witnesses. he had to relay questions through the deputy district attorney.
For eight days, the city was captivated. Although the inquest jury voted 6-3 that Deadwyler’s death was accidental homicide, the television footage of Cochran revealed a presence and smoothness that print could never capture. He may have lost the case (Cochran’s law firm later filed a civil suit that it also lost), but it forged his reputation as a champion against racist prosecution.
Cochran’s next prominent case--defending Elmer ji Jaga (Geronimo) Pratt, a Black Panther on trial, Cochran produced a Polaroid photograph, supplied by Pratt’s brother, showing that his client had a mustache and “chin hair,” while the prosecution claimed the murderer was cleanshaven. The photograph, Cochran claimed, was taken in 1968, just after the killing. But a Polaroid official testified that particular film wasn’t manufactured until May 28, 1969. Cochran says he was “shocked and stunned.” Pratt was sentenced to life in prison, and the case remains a cause celebre.
Cochran’s stature was so high six years later that Dist. Atty. John K. Van de Kamp recruited him to be one of his top assistant district attorneys. “I wanted to move blacks into high-ranking positions, and Cochran was eminently qualified,” Van de Kamp says. Cochran--along with Gil Garcetti, who worked under Cochran--started the “roll-out” program, which for the first time required district attorneys to investigate police-involved shootings in the field.
While Cochran was in the district attorney’s office, Pratt came up for parole. “Van de Kamp’s office was vehemently opposed to Pratt’s release,” recalls Girard Courteau, a deputy district attorney for Marin County who represented the state at Pratt’s hearing. “Cochran then did a very, very stupid thing.” Identifying himself as the Los Angeles assistant district attorney, Cochran sent a Mailgram recommending Pratt for parole. An angry Van de Kamp quickly wrote the parole board: “I wish to make it clear that this office does not concur in Mr. Cochran’s personal views in this matter.” Cochran now shrugs off the controversy and continues to maintain Pratt’s innocence.
Cochran left Van de Kamp’s office in 1981. He could no longer afford “the fivefold” cut in pay, he says, so he returned to private practice, joining Trope & Trope, then located in Century City. Soon he was back on the front page and on the nightly news.
Ron Settles, a promising black football player at Cal State Long Beach was, according to police found hanging by his neck in the jail of the tiny community of Signal Hill, southwest of Los Angeles. Police claimed that Settles had committed suicide, but a coroner’s inquest jury voted 5-4 that Settles “died at the hands of another.” Settles’ parents hired Cochran, who sued Signal Hill on their behalf for $62 million. He had Settles’ body exhumed, and he investigated Signal Hill police. Thirteen months later, Cochran agreed to a reported $760,000 out-of-court settlement.
Cochran was satisfied with the agreement, but his co-counsel, Michael R. Mitchell, is still bitter: “I was so furious at what Johnnie did. He never ever told me. He sold Settles’ parents out. They could have done better.”
“I know Mitchell is still mad,” Cochran says, “but no, he’s wrong. ... The family said to me, ‘We want this case settled.’ (Mitchell) is a very smart guy, but sometimes he forgets the principles of all the clients.”
Mitchell’s bitterness, though, does not muffle his respect: “Johnnie is one of the best trial attorneys I have ever encountered.”
By the mid 1980s, that view was commonly held. What follows is a sample of what lawyers and judges say about Cochran’s ability in court: “Cochran has an approach with the jury that is unbeatable...an ability that is phenomenal.... He has a sixth sense.... When Johnnie talks to the jury, it’s like a light bulb turning on between him and them.... The trick is to break down a case to very simple concepts so that a jury can understand (that) your client is the good guy and the other side is the bad guy. Johnnie knows how to do that.... If Johnnie tells jurors that a turkey can pull a freight train, they’ll look for a rope.”
It was Cochran who took charge of Simpson’s defense in the opening days of 1995. “It was O.J.’s call,” Cochran says. “I’m now the point person primarily responsible for the trial strategy--with Shapiro’s blessing and to his credit. It’s been hard for Bob. It’s been his case.”
Cochran concedes that he and Shapiro were never friends. Thrust together in this case, they clashed. When Shapiro signed autographs outside the courthouse, Cochran publicly sneered at the practice. When Shapiro snapped at Judge Lance Ito in court last year, Cochran says, “I went over and I said, ‘Bob, can I talk to you? This is not for you. This is for O.J.’ ” Shapiro apologized to Ito. When asked why Shapiro sits by Simpson, Cochran wisecracks, “That’s where the TV cameras are pointed.”
All that tension is history, Cochran now insists. “We’re here for Juice. Sure, there are egos involved, but there is enough for everybody. Bob’s going to play an active role. He’ll be questioning witnesses.”
We sit in Judge Ito’s empty courtroom during a lunch break. The day before, the prosecution had hammered Simpson with 50 allegations of physical and mental abuse of Nicole Brown Simpson, beginning in 1977. For once, Cochran can’t control his emotions. His words gush breathlessly. “You get me at a time when I’m sort of on a high. This is a critical time for us. O.J.’s scared to death. He can’t get up and say, ‘That’s wrong.’ He couldn’t stand it. The prosecution was down and dirty. They’re playing hardball. The jury is sequestered. It’s not for them. They’re playing to the press.”
Cochran pauses for air. “It was tough yesterday. Now we’ve got them back-pedaling. They took out 18 allegations. It was a bunch of drivel. It was so aggravating.”
F. Lee Bailey emerges form a side door. He motions to Cochran. “I’m standing the watch with O.J. (during lunch). We need to talk.”
Cochran says his office has become a “war room. It’s incredible. It’s the most massive undertaking I’ve ever seen. There are 23,000 pages and 300 witnesses computerized and cross-referenced. I’ve got 20 people--including 10 attorneys, two private investigators and researchers--on this.”
Cochran says he has spent most of January preparing an opening statement and “projecting and analyzing what evidence the prosecution is going to hit us with. I’ve got to show a reasonable doubt and embellish on that. I’ve got to show this was a rush to judgment by police and the district attorney. How they (police and prosecution) were lying to judges. I’ll talk a lot about the lack of integrity of the evidence.”
Cochran is well aware of the defense attorney adage: The appearance of being innocent is far more important than being innocent. Cochran says he told Simpson “to be himself.” All confidence, Cochran adds: “You’re gonna look at this guy and say, ‘This guy didn’t do it.’ ”
COCHRAN CAN’T HELP BUT SEE MY list of typed questions as we drive to an appointment at UCLA. He spots the word, “egomania.” He flinches. “People say that about me? Who says that?”
‘Most everybody,” I reply.
We park. Cochran pulls a bag from his car trunk. “Videos,” he says. “Of me.” Nine to be exact. Profiles by NBC, CBS, CNN, the Courtroom Television Network, “Hard Copy,” “Inside Edition,” “Eye to Eye With Connie Chung” and two personal homages. One of these tributes runs 14 minutes, flashing 95 photographs of Cochran from infancy to Simpson to the strains of pop gospel and soul music. The video ends with a 90-second close-up of Cochran smiling.
His birth certificate of Oct. 2, 1937, in Shreveport, La., identifies him as James Harold Cochran, named after the doctor who delivered him. A week later, his mother, Hattie, upon reflection, changed him name to Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., after his father, Johnnie L. Sr. The middle initial “L” is just an initial; no name goes with it.
Cochran was 6 when his family took the train to California. they moved into a three-bedroom, one-bath, wood-frame house in West Adams, a middle-class neighborhood when Cochran and his two sisters were growing up. His father was an executive in the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co., one of the largest black-owned businesses in the United States; he was in charge of the company’s training program.
Cochran attended Los Angeles High School on Olympic Boulevard, bordering exclusive Hancock Park. His classmates were largely upper-middle-class and white. He likes to tell interviewers about the tennis courts, swimming pools and indoor archery range that his white friends had. At the time, he says, “I thought, ‘Hey, I can have that, too.’ ”
His mother occasionally sold Avon door-to-door, but her family came first. “My mother cooked every day of her life for her family,” he says. “She was the glue that kept us all together. She was very wise.” Cochran’s mother died in 1991 at 74. His father, now 78, lives with him.
“Johnnie Cochran is the product of loving, religious, outstanding parents,” says Irwin Evans, Cochran’s law partner from 1970 to 1978. “They nurtured him on the importance of education, which in those days was the only way out for blacks.” Cochran’s father put his three children through UCLA at the same time.
At UCLA, Cochran joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. His sponsor and Big Brother was future mayor Tom Bradley. There he also met Ronald Sunderland, the son of a Jewish grocer. They entered Loyola Law School together, crammed for the bar at Sunderland’s home and were best men at each other’s weddings. “We’re the closest of friends,” Cochran says. “For 20 years, Ron and I have talked daily, each morning.” Sunderland is now executive vice president in charge of business affairs and contracts at KABC.
“In law school,” Sunderland recounts, “Johnnie studied hard but his grades weren’t that great. He got mad because I watched television, and he had to study. Nobody predicted he would become a great trial attorney. But we all knew he had something special: boundless energy, personality, an almost photographic memory.”
Sunderland says people misread Cochran’s constant pursuit of political connections, particularly with prosecutors his clients face in court. “There is the perception that Johnnie wants to become the big player in town. The truth is Johnnie likes money and what it gives him. He wants access to prosecutors because it’s good for his clients. Johnnie works hard and he likes to have fun, play hard. That’s the side of Johnnie nobody knows. He does it for what money can buy. A lot of people try to get next to him, to know him. He doesn’t like that. To those people he masks his feelings.”
After graduating from UCLA in 1959, Cochran married Barbara Jean Berry, an elementary-school teacher. The marriage produced two daughters. In 1967, Berry filed for divorce. They reconciled, but she filed again in 1977, and the marriage ended. In both instances, she accused Cochran of assaulting her.
According to a declaration filed in May 1967, to obtain a restraining order, Barbara alleged that “On April 29, 1967, my husband violently pushed me against the wall, held me there and grabbed me by my chin. He has slapped me in the past, torn a dress off me (and) threatened on numerous occasions to beat me up.... “
Ten years later, she filed a declaration that said: “During the course of our marriage ... (Cochran has) without any reasonable cause, provocation or justification physically struck, beat and inflicted severe injury up on the person of the Petitioner.... “
Confronted with these allegations, Cochran’s body sags. His eyes close. He knows the implications of his ex-wife’s accusations, given the charges of domestic violence against Simpson. He shakes his head. His response is adamant, “I never, never touched her. You can talk to her.”
Cochran insists that his ex-wife wanted possession of their houses, both in 1967 and 1977, and that an accusation of violence was helpful in gaining a restraining order so that she could maintain possession of their home. The court file does not indicate a finding, but the judge did grant the order in 1977.
To obtain a restraining order, “it was necessary to provide the court with evidence of specific acts of assault, battery, intimidation and threats of harm,” says Harry Fain, an L.A. divorce attorney for 45 years and a former chairman of Family Law for the American Bar Assn.
“I have never touched her or hit her, and we are very good friends to this day,” Cochran says. “Those are 20-year-old statements for legal reasons. She knows they are not true and will be happy to talk to you about it.”
Several days pass. She gives me a statement: “I am very happy for Johnnie’s phenomenal success.”
“That’s it?” I ask.
She replies, “I have nothing more to say” I explain I am calling with the expectation she will back off, or at least soften, her accusations.
“I decline comment,” she says.
“Are you saying Johnnie did beat you?”
“I will not discuss it. I never said I wanted to be interviewed.”
Cochran groans when I repeat his former wife’s statement. “That’s a terrible comment,” he says. “Looks like somebody wrote that out for her. She probably called her lawyers. They said don’t say anything; they’ll get you for perjury. Nobody is going to try her for perjury.
“Here’s what I told her” ’There’s a bunch of allegations ... I didn’t beat you. We never had any fights or anything. Now I want you to answer those questions.’ She didn’t say anything. then she said, ‘OK, I’ll talk to him, but I don’t want to talk to him right now. Call me back later.”
In the course of my interviews with Cochran, he kept returning to his former wife’s allegations and continued to deny that he had ever physically abused her. By our final conversation, though, Cochran seems resigned that she will not make a retraction. Still, he says, shaking his head, he cannot understand why. “I always paid everything ... did everything. A lot of what I am I owe that woman.”
Cochran met his present wife, Sylvia Dale Mason, now 43, in 1981, and they married in 1985. A market research analyst for firms such as Mattel, Nissan and Toyota, she is “not Mrs. Johnnie Cochran,” says Patricia Schoneberger, who has known and traveled with the Cochrans for 10 years and who works as an airport publicist. “She is not riding on his fame.”
Cochran won’t quibble that he’s worth between $5 and $6 million. His holdings include his Los Feliz home, two beachfront condominiums in Marina del Rey and 16 apartment units near Downtown. He just invested in a Pepsi Cola bottling plant in South Africa. Cochran owns a 1980 Mercedes-Benz 450, a 1985 Cadillac El Dorado, a 1988 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit, two 1994 XJS Jaguars and a Honda and Toyota for his children.
“I love nice cars, but my life is not just about material stuff,” he insists. “I give back to the community whenever I can.” His list of gifts includes a $250,000 donation in 1992 to help finance Cochran Villas, 10 units of low-income housing in Southwest Los Angeles; a $50,000 scholarship fund at UCLA for young African American men that’s named after his father, and a $100,000 contribution he made to the Tom Bradley International Center now under construction at UCLA. He also has contributed about $100,000 to refurbish the Second Baptist Church, where he has been a member for 47 years.
WARD MCCONNELL SUCKS deeply on his cigarette. He sends an angry blast of smoke toward a squirrel raining shells from the pecan tree in the back yard of his Pasadena home. A former L.A. assistant city attorney who retired in 1994 after more than 30 years, McConnell talks about his last courtroom encounter with Cochran in 1992. His face tightens. “He doesn’t give a s---. He treats you like rat s---.”
McConnell was defending the city in a lawsuit filed by Cochran and attorney David Kyle. They represented a family whose father died of a broken neck while in the custody of L.A. County sheriff’s deputies. The primary target was the county. The city was sued because the LAPD arrested and handed over the father to sheriff’s deputies.
As the trial progressed, “the city’s involvement was considered minimal,” Kyle says. “Johnnie kept the city in. But at some point, the jury would have let L.A. out of the suit.”
If that happened, Cochran would owe the city $66,000 in court costs. Before the court recessed for lunch, McConnell offered to waive the $66,000 if Cochran dropped the city from the case. But during lunch, Cochran went around McConnell and negotiated a $50,000 settlement with City Atty. James K. Hahn’s office, which also agreed to waive the $66,000. Cochran announced the settlement in court after lunch. McConnell was stunned and is still angry nearly four years later. “Cochran repeatedly goes over the (trial) attorney’s head to Hahn’s office. He owns them. There are deputies down there who will do anything to get out of a case with Johnnie. His influence with Hahn is incredible.”
This is one of two legendary stories within the city attorney’s office about Cochran’s influence over Hahn. The second one concerns Deputy City Atty. Theodore Heyck. In 1992, he asked a judge to remove Cochran from a case “based upon a conflict of interest because (Airport) Commissioner Cochran ... is a mayoral appointee and well-known confidant of Mayor Bradley, and yet he’s taken a position in this case ... “
According to Heyck, Hahn immediately ordered him to drop the issue. “I couldn’t believe how scared everybody was,” Heyck says. Although Heyck obeyed, Hahn suspended him for three days without pay for bringing up the issue in the first place. Heyck’s supporters reached Cochran in Spain at the Olympics. Cochran picks up the story: “I get a message that Hahn wants to discipline Heyck. I called Hahn and told him, ‘Don’t do that! I don’t think he deserves that! Are you crazy?’ ” Hahn canceled the suspension. Hahn declined repeated requests for an interview for this story.
“Jimmy Hahn and I had a deal,” Cochran explains. “He told me: ‘Cochran, before you go settle cases that are unreasonable, come and talk to me.’ ”
Cochran also had a close relationship with Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti. It was no surprise when singer Michael Jackson hired Cochran during Garcetti’s 1993 criminal investigation into allegations that the superstar had molested a 13-year old boy. Representing the boy was Larry R. Feldman, a former president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. and the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Assn. He is convinced that Cochran and Garcetti discussed the case privately on three occasions.
“The delay in Gil Garcetti not prosecuting this case and Johnnie Cochran’s relationship with Garcetti was a factor in not having the boy testify,” Feldman insists.
Garcetti denies the charge. “I don’t recall meeting with Johnnie privately,” he says. “Maybe if I ran into him, he might say something. I did talk (to Cochran) on the phone two or three, maybe four times. In fact, there were a number of phone calls from Johnnie about Jackson that I had (now director of Central Operations) Bill Hodgman return. I don’t deny Johnnie has access. He is a friend. But I talk with a lot of attorneys.”
Cochran’s friendship extended to getting Garcetti votes when he defeated incumbent Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner in 1992. Cochran asked Pastor Epps to introduce Garcetti in front of his congregation. “I told Johnnie, ‘Whatever you want me to do,’ ” Epps says. “Johnnie has a definite level of influence among grass-roots Afro-American, but with the Afro-American middle class, Johnnie’s political endorsement can be invaluable.”
Cochran also backs influence with cash. He and members of his law firm have given nearly $100,000 to local politicians since the mid-1980s. More significant, Cochran hosts or sponsors quite a few fund-raising brunches, parties and dinners. “I’ve raised a lot of money for a lot of people, and I’m still raising money,” Cochran says. “I don’t have an ulterior motive.”
Cochran served from 1981 to 1993 as a Tom Bradley appointee on the Los Angeles Airport Commission, where he was viewed as someone who carried out the mayor’s wishes. In 1984, the airport completed a new international wing called the West Terminal, which, Cochran announced suddenly one day, was to be named the Tom Bradley International Terminal. “The other commissioners sat there dumbfounded,” recalls William M. Schoenfeld, the airport’s former deputy executive director. “Traditionally, you don’t name buildings after somebody until they are dead, or at least retired. Johnnie wanted it. Johnnie got it. Johnnie ran the commission.”
Cochran’s only brush with scandal occurred during his tenure on the commission. A number of Bradley friends and fund-raisers were awarded choice airport concessions with little or no cash investment required. Cochran’s name surfaced as a central figure. Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Ethics Committee, hired Cochran in 1986 to do $170,000 in legal work. Two months later, Cochran, then the Airport Commission chairman, voted to award a concession to run seven duty-free stores to a company partly owned by Dixon’s wife. Her investment of some $15,000 earned more than $150,000 over the next two years.
Dixon insisted that he had “never discussed with anyone, including Johnnie Cochran, anything about (my wife’s) business.” Cochran said at the time: “We had no knowledge at all of Betty Dixon. She never appeared in the records....”
Before leaving office, former Dist Atty. Reiner closed the investigation because of what he described as a combination of insufficient evidence and the stature of limitations.
I ask Cochran if he is the most politically connected lawyer in Los Angeles. “Well, you hear that,” he replies, “and I mean you hear that, but I don’t necessarily know that’s it’s true.”
AT 6:05 A.M., JOHNNIE COCHRAN opens the security gate to his home. The Los Angeles skyline still flickers in the fading darkness. He wears a black velour workout suit. The gold band across the top of his glasses gleams in the pre-dawn light. His eyes are puffy. He seems groggy. Then he speaks, and gone is the perception of bleariness. His voice is vibrant. He rips a plastic rain cover off his copy of the morning paper.
“No front-page ink today, Johnnie,” I needle. “You’re back inside, over the fold, in Metro.”
Cochran smiles. “It’s just as well,” he sighs.
We have already had one conversation about pressure and the press. Cochran talks faster. “When I held the final press conference on the Michael Jackson case, there were 200 cameras, helicopters hovering overhead. I thought to myself, ‘I’ll never see this again.’ Then came Simpson. Even Jackson was nothing like this. I never dreamed it would be this intense. We go to court and we have no idea what’s going to happen. I like to have control. I have no control. And the media, the press, cameras, microphones. ‘Comment on this, comment on that.’ Telling me ... asking me things going on back East I don’t even know about yet. I walk at a place I never thought possible, just to get to my car. And the reporters walk just as fast backward. It’s Nutsville. It’s madness.”
Cochran impassively skims the day’s story, and we go inside to wait for his personal trainer.
Cochran gazes down at the L.A. skyline though floor-to-ceiling windows of his hillside home, which he bought in 1972. He remodeled it several years ago, and the result is gold-laced marble floors, 30-foot cathedral ceilings, stained-glass doors, a curved staircase with a gold banister. African and African American sculptures, carvings and paintings dot the white plaster walls. I mention that he has lived and worked within a seven-mile radius of Downtown since moving to the city 45 years ago. “I never realized that,” he says, his voice a whisper. “I guess this is my home ground.”
Marc Vahanian, Cochran’s personal trainer, arrives at 6:30 a.m. He is 15 minutes late, and Cochran is annoyed. He’ll now have to rush through his exercises and a shower and meet Robert Shapiro at 8:20 a.m. for their daily strategy session and trip to court with O.J. Simpson.
The upstairs weight room is state of the art. Mirrored. Black leather. White-enamel equipment, trademill, stainless-steel pulleys, chrome weights and dumbbells. Cochran strains and sweats. “I do this four times a week,” he grunts. “Mental endurance. Late in the day, when everybody else gets tired, I get a second wind. I’ve got a gym at the office and my beach condo.”
“Johnnie’s in good shape.” says Vahanian. “He’s a solid 170.” The trainer wags his finger. “No more questions. It’s Johnnie’s quiet time.”
Cochran’s head slumps. His eyes close. His chest heaves. The trainer massages his scalp. He whispers, “Let it out, let it out. Let it all out. Deep, deep ... recharge your batteries.” Cochran is in a trance. Five minutes pass. “When you’re ready,” the trainer says, “Come back, come back. Slowly resurface.”
Cochran’s eyes flutter open. The puffiness is gone.
“That was perfect,” he murmurs. “I’m ready.”
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