In a funeral overflowing with guests and speakers, emotions and stories, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., the charismatic attorney who became a household name after successfully defending O.J. Simpson, was eulogized as a man who saw his real calling in the civil rights cases that he undertook on his “journey to justice.”
The 3 1/2 -hour funeral, as extravagant as Cochran’s colorful suits, lasted longer than it took the jury to deliberate the fate of Simpson, his most famous client, who sat among the 5,000 worshipers at the West Angeles Cathedral in South Los Angeles.
“The nation needs to understand why we’re all here today.... Johnnie Cochran represented to us justice personified,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, noting that when the Los Angeles-based attorney made a second home in New York, where Sharpton lives, he worked on police brutality and racial-profiling cases, among others.
“Johnnie Cochran was to this era what Thurgood Marshall was to the era before,” Sharpton said, referring to the civil rights attorney and first black Supreme Court justice who was one of Cochran’s idols.
Directing his gaze at Simpson, Sharpton continued, “With all due respect to you, Brother Simpson, when we heard about the acquittal, we weren’t clapping for O.J., we were clapping for Johnnie.”
The mourners roared their approval.
“We were clapping because for decades our brothers, our cousins, our uncles had to stand in the well with no one to stand up for them. And finally a black man came and said, if it don’t fit -- you must acquit.”
The mourners gave a standing ovation as Sharpton delivered Cochran’s most famous line from the Simpson trial.
It was one of many dramatic moments during a funeral that, like Cochran, was an engaging and indefatigable mix -- funny and poignant, smart and passionate.
Dr. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, one of the oldest and most influential black churches in the nation -- who, along with Cochran’s pastor, Dr. William S. Epps of Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, presided -- gently but repeatedly urged speakers to be brief.
But the people who came to eulogize Cochran just couldn’t abide by that. Cochran was just too rich and vivid a figure in their lives. After all, among those gathered under one elegant and expansive roof, were two preachers and former presidential candidates (Jesse Jackson and Sharpton), a music mogul and former Cochran client (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs), a congressman (Charles B. Rangel), a lawyer turned TV personality (Star Jones Reynolds) and the man whose eventual court victory Cochran considered his most important (Geronimo Pratt, now Geronimo ji Jaga).
And those were just some of the two dozen people who spoke to the assembled mourners, including his wife, Dale Mason Cochran, his sisters, his children, and his father, Johnnie L. Cochran Sr. At the front of the church lay the polished coffin covered with white roses, begonias and gladiola. In addition to a choir from the Second Baptist Church, Stevie Wonder performed a song, crooning gently, “I’ll be your comfort through the pain.... “
Scattered throughout the church were politicians and activists, members of his law firm, business tycoons and the people who took care of him during his illness. Seated along the wall were 225 red-jacketed members of Kappa Alpha Psi, the venerable black fraternity, who rose from their seats when called upon, creating a blanket of color.
Film director Spike Lee, businessman and former Laker star Magic Johnson, actress Angela Bassett, Los Angeles Councilman Bernard C. Parks, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), attorney Gloria Allred and F. Lee Bailey, a former co-counsel on the Simpson criminal case, were present. Among the people who sat behind the pulpit and waited for their turns to speak were attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who worked with Cochran and also formed a law firm with him to tackle civil rights cases.
Neufeld recalled Cochran taking the case of the Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, who was brutally sodomized by New York police. Neufeld said that in that case as in others, Cochran believed that it wasn’t enough to win a large settlement. He also demanded reforms.
“He thought this would be an opportunity not to just deal with police brutality,” he said, but to challenge the policy that allowed police officers to decline interrogation for 48 hours. The policy has since been changed.
When Butts called on Cochran’s clients in the audience to stand, the group across the main floor of the church included Simpson and Louima.
“I believe Johnnie was a voice for those who could not speak for themselves,” Louima said as he listened to the service. Cochran won him an $8.75-million settlement. Louima now lives in Miami. “Besides being my lawyer, he was my friend,” he said.
Michael Jackson -- who was represented by Cochran in his financial settlement with sexual-abuse accusers in 1993 -- sat with his current attorney, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. After the funeral, he declined to speak about Cochran as he was ushered to a waiting car. But Simpson, who departed the funeral as photographers snapped away and onlookers called his name, spoke glowingly of the architect of his criminal defense.
“This turnout shows what he meant to the community,” Simpson said. “He was a Christian man. He just happened to be a great lawyer.”
In the pulpit, speakers mixed scriptural verse with anecdotes. Mayor James K. Hahn spoke of going to the River Jordan in Israel on a trip with Cochran.
“He didn’t just love justice or admire justice, he did justice, he achieved justice, he fought for justice,” said Hahn, referring to the theme of the service, “Journey to Justice,” which is also the title of Cochran’s first memoir.
“He was a commander of the court and a maestro of the jury,” said Connie Rice, a co-director of the Advancement Project, an organization she started with former colleagues from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She said the second phone call she got after she joined the NAACP was from Cochran, who offered his help. Noting that the NAACP was once Marshall’s law firm, Cochran told her, “Anything you want, you call me.”
Family members, including his daughters Melodie and Tiffany, and his son Jonathan, spoke eloquently of how they shared him with the world but knew he cherished them above all else.
“He loved basking in the sunshine of celebrity,” said William Baker Sr., the husband of Cochran’s sister, Pearl Cochran Baker, and his longtime friend. “But home with his family was where he came to exhale.”
Friends marveled at the closeness of Cochran and his wife, whom they credited with taking extraordinary care of him.
Cochran loved big Southern dinners and was a “devourer of barbecue,” as Baker put it. He wanted to take singing lessons, but he “suffered from extreme rhythm deprivation,” Baker said.
Battling the effects of the brain tumor that eventually killed him, Cochran struggled through physical therapy last summer so he could walk his daughter, Tiffany, down the aisle at her wedding, unassisted.
“He did it as only my dad could do it,” Tiffany Cochran Edwards told the mourners. “With grace and style, elegance and his signature smile. I learned more about determination that day than I did from any trial,” she said, her voice wavering.
Combs recalled Cochran as “Uncle Johnnie.”
“I really got to know him one night in December,” he deadpanned about the night in 1999 when he got himself “in a situation,” which eventually led to a weapons possession charge. “I begged him to please come get me out of jail. It didn’t matter that it was the night after Christmas. It didn’t matter that he was on vacation. He came.”
Cochran got him acquitted of the charges. “He saved my life. Because of him, I get to see my kids, I get to see my mother, I get to make music, and I get to be here today with you.”
Like several others, Combs recounted the dazzling figure that Cochran cut.
“When Johnnie walked, it was like the theme from ‘Shaft’ was playing in the background,” said Combs, as the audience broke into laughter.
Cochran’s law partner, Eric Ferrer Jr., serenaded the group with a haunting melody on an African instrument he said he played for Cochran while visiting him during his illness.
When he went to pay his respects, Ferrer said, he could think only of all the cases he still wanted to work on with Cochran. But then he realized that he was prepared to go on without him.
“He trained us to continue his work,” Ferrer said. “The only way to do him justice is to do justice in the world.”
Times staff writers Jason Felch, Anna Gorman and Richard Winton contributed to this report.