THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : THE DEFENSE: A Rising Star : With a string of courtroom successes, Johnnie Cochran has emerged as a top defense attorney and an influential black leader.

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Huckster or champion of civil rights, a soldier in the battle for equal justice or a snake oil salesman pure and simple, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. has been called many things over his long law career. For the moment, we can call him the nation's most celebrated criminal defense attorney. And maybe more than that.

For as surely as his defense of O.J. Simpson led to a stunning, lightning-quick acquittal, Cochran has emerged as one of the most influential black voices in America.

"He is a national hero, especially among African Americans," said former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. "He has taken on a new mantle because they regard his victory in trial as a victory over some racist actions by some members of the Police Department."

Businessman Bondie Gambrell added: "People are looking for a leader and champion of justice in this country, especially blacks. . . . Not since Malcolm X has someone been able to debate publicly against the immoralities that have been perpetrated against black people."

For many, the comparisons to Malcolm X or other giants of civil rights are a stretch.

"Just because someone is prominent doesn't make them a leader," said Aldore Collier, West Coast editor for Johnson Publishing Co., publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines. "I don't think he thinks of himself as a leader. I think he thinks he is just doing his job."

Perhaps.

Even those who praise his skills acknowledge that Cochran's ascension might say as much about a national hunger for new black leaders as it does about his right to join those ranks.

"I wouldn't deny [Cochran] anything," said Gambrell, a prominent African American Democratic fund-raiser for Jesse Jackson and others over the years. "But yeah . . . he stepped into a vacuum. Sure he did."

Unlike others who may have had the chance and blown it, however, Cochran has seized the moment, Gambrell said. And he and others who have known Cochran for years say the 58-year-old attorney has never been one to shrink from the spotlight.

"He loves the glory," Gambrell said.

More of that is sure to come.

When the Congressional Black Caucus held a Washington conference last month, it was not President Clinton or retired Gen. Colin L. Powell who received several ovations or were besieged for autographs. It was Cochran. "Johnnie was well received," said Kim Hunter, a Los Angeles advertising and public relations executive. "The audience of something like 5,000 embraced him. They were very proud."

Long before the Simpson trial began, Cochran was known among trial attorneys nationwide and community leaders locally. After all, before Simpson, he defended Michael Jackson against allegations of molestation. Before Jackson, he was retained by Reginald O. Denny to sue the city after Denny was beaten during the 1992 riots. And before that, Cochran amassed a string of legal victories during a law career that began 32 years ago and included landmark verdicts against police departments.

In 1981, the city of Signal Hill settled, for about $700,000, a case brought by Cochran on behalf of the family of Ron Settles, a black Cal State Long Beach football star who police said committed suicide but who others, including Cochran, charged had been killed in jail by a police chokehold.

Ten years later, Cochran won another groundbreaking case--this one against the city of Los Angeles, where he had served for years as an airport commissioner. In that lawsuit, a jury awarded a record $9.4 million to the family of a 13-year-old girl who had been molested by an LAPD officer.

So before Simpson, Cochran was known to many. But with the Simpson trial broadcast around the world, Cochran's courtroom theatrics held not only a national but an international audience.

"I just got back from Paris and you heard people in the streets, at the little cafes . . . talking about the trial," said Hunter, whose communications company helped Cochran's law firm branch into entertainment law.

Likewise, Bradley said, he heard Cochran's name often during a recent business trip to the Mediterranean. "He is well known there . . . and this [was] before the verdict. Now with this verdict, he will be very much in demand everywhere," Bradley said.

"This has not only national but international notoriety, and the fact that he won the case speaks for itself," said outgoing State Bar Assn. President Donald Fischbach.

Of course, Cochran's stunning victory in the courtroom has not come without a price--to the reputation of the legal system and to the attorney himself, who used bodyguards at the courthouse and installed metal detectors for his Mid-Wilshire office.

Fischbach said his tenure as bar president was shadowed by dozens of calls from people across the country "venting rage" at the courts--and at Cochran. "I had to argue to everybody all year that this was just an aberration," he said.

After hearing Cochran's closing arguments, LAPD homicide Detective Tom Lange had a searing response. "The preacher has turned into a snake oil salesman," said the normally soft-spoken detective, who used expletives to describe Cochran's remarks.

Among several controversial tactics, Cochran's appeal to moral and racial principles and his comparison of former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler triggered anger and sometimes rage. The fury reached its zenith during closing arguments when Fred Goldman, father of victim Ron Goldman, branded the lead defense attorney "a disgusting human being" who "ought to be put away."

The anger will remain. But so will the accolades.

As the full impact of Simpson's acquittal swelled through the day, even groups that had often butted heads with Cochran were hesitant to attack him.

"People don't hire Johnnie Cochran to get at the truth, they hire him to get a verdict," said Cliff Ruff, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. "And the [defense] lawyers did a tremendous job. You don't fault a hired gun."

Keith Watters, a Washington lawyer who is president of the National Bar Assn., a group of black lawyers and judges, said Cochran is "the perfect lawyer at this point in our history" to counter "the vicious stereotype of the incompetent black professional. His performance--which all the world was viewing--is a reaffirmation for people of color to show their confidence, their skill and their compassion," he said. "Johnnie obviously is in the class of superstar attorney. If O.J. had another lawyer, he might easily have been convicted."

The verdict sent Cochran's book publishing stock soaring--only Simpson may rival him in prospective book money, one insider said.

"The word on the street now is that [Cochran's] ante is obviously up, his stock has risen most definitely. He has an enormous audience right now in the country, and the black book-buying market is very strong and very lucrative," said Maureen O'Brien, news editor for Publisher's Weekly in New York.

Cochran, she said, should go "neck and neck" with Simpson himself for the biggest deal, with both likely to attract contracts of $1 million or more.

The verdict, some say, also sealed Cochran's place in the history of American law.

"I think he has probably earned a place among the greatest trial lawyers America has ever had," San Diego defense attorney Milt Silverman said, invoking the names of Daniel Webster and Clarence Darrow. "I think his summation . . . will live in the history books because it touched the very heart and soul of what was dishonest about the government's case and that the citizens could not stand to convict somebody in face of such dishonesty."

Given the trial's worldwide coverage, David Lafaille, a Santa Monica defense attorney and former public defender, said Cochran "could be the most famous criminal defense attorney of all time."

"I think he sank to a new low of cynicism" in closing remarks, said Lafaille, who has tried cases with Cochran during the 25 years they have known each other. "I think it was overkill on his part. But it was the kind of overkill that wins."

And now, Cochran joins the list of attorneys who have become inextricably linked with a celebrated courtroom victory.

"Dream Team" member F. Lee Bailey, for instance, first gained nationwide fame when he won the 1966 acquittal of Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard, who had been convicted of killing his wife. Attorney William M. Kunstler became synonymous with the radical movement a few years later when he successfully represented the Chicago Seven against conspiracy charges.

Former Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent T. Bugliosi went on to become a best-selling author after gaining a conviction of infamous murderer Charles Manson. And Simpson team member Alan Dershowitz went from Harvard law professor to major character in a Hollywood motion picture after winning a retrial for Rhode Island socialite Claus Von Bulow, who was eventually acquitted of charges that he had put his wife in a coma with insulin injections.

So was it simply a matter of time before Cochran became this famous? And could any other skilled attorney have done the same?

Those who know Cochran best doubt it.

For others who might have had the chance--and even the skills--do not have his personality.

"Could Larry Holmes have been Muhammad Ali, even if he fought as well?" Gambrell asked rhetorically. "No. Because he didn't have the flair."

Or as former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown said Tuesday of Cochran: "His skills were fairly well known and well respected in the legal community, and this effort simply ratified that reputation."

And where does Cochran go from here?

"I think he just keeps on trying cases," Brown said. "He just keeps on getting richer and richer and richer."

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