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 against murder charges, died Tuesday. He was 67.
Cochran died of an inoperable brain tumor at his home in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, said his brother-in-law Bill Baker. The tumor was diagnosed in December 2003, Baker said.
Initially, 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, which largely draw their cachet from his presence. But Cochran confirmed in a September 2004 interview with The Times that neurosurgeon Keith Black at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles was treating him.
Simpson praised Cochran on Tuesday from his home in Florida.
“I’ve got to say, I don’t think I’d be home today without Johnnie,” the Hall of Famer told Associated Press. “Johnnie is what’s good about the law. He loved the system. I always tell people, if your kids or your loved ones got in trouble, you would want Johnnie. Even his adversaries respected him.”
Long before his defense of Simpson, Cochran challenged what many viewed as the Los Angeles Police Department’s misconduct toward people under arrest, at a time when the court system still ignored that behavior and victims took it for granted.
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 brutality cases 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 O. Denny, the white trucker beaten by a mob during the 1992 riots after the not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating were announced.
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 when police failed to do their jobs at all upon being ordered to withdraw from the intersection of Florence Avenue and Normandie Street, a flash point of the riots where Denny was pulled from his big rig and attacked.
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 L.A. resident. After the Simpson case, 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 casual friend of hers, 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, the attorney 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 that they were victims of the system in one way or another.
He was able to connect with any jury, and in his most famous case, the Simpson trial, he delivered 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 -- actually conceived by co-consul Gerald F. Uelmen during a strategy session -- referred to the defense’s overall assessment of the evidence.
But it most evoked the moment in 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 crime scene, the other outside Simpson’s house.
“He could walk into court and charm the pants off a jury,” said Leslie Abramson, a leading defense attorney now retired. “But it wasn’t snake oil. He could figure out the essence of the case -- of how ordinary people would view the law, the facts -- and the equity, the sense of justice. He always had it figured out. And he had it figured out in Simpson. And the prosecutors never did.”
Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky agreed. “I think you could have given that case to a lot of talented lawyers and O.J. would have been convicted,” he told The Times in late 2004.
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 an African American man achieving that degree 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, Republican Pete Wilson, and even the attorney’s own co-counsel Robert Shapiro -- denounced a legal strategy that put the competence and character of the LAPD 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 a jury of nine African Americans, two whites and one Latino, all but two of them women, acquitted Simpson.
During the trial, Cochran and the rest of the defense team excoriated criminalists for sloppy work that compromised blood evidence and claimed that the police prejudged Simpson. Cochran and his “Dream Team,” as the defense attorneys were known, revealed that Det. 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 probably the first high-profile reality TV show.
When it was finally over and the jury had acquitted Simpson, many in the public had not. A Times poll indicated that half the American public disagreed with the verdict. And the majority believed that the defense had used the race issue inappropriately to help free a defendant whose controversial saga began when he fled police in a nationally televised slow 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 that Cochran believed the police had conspired to frame Simpson. It was more that their racism had led 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 O.J.'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 racially polarizing force but as the integrator, the black man gliding easily through white conference rooms, dinner parties and neighborhoods.
In the September 2004 phone interview with The Times, Cochran said he still would have taken the case had he known 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 interview. “Even after all this time.”
Although the Simpson case might have been Cochran’s bravura moment on the public stage, he did not consider it his most important case. It was the long and twisted legal saga of Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt that for Cochran marked, at different points, the nadir and the pinnacle of his career.
Authorities contended that Pratt, a former Black Panther 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 lineup two years after the shootings.
Cochran said his biggest disappointment was watching his client, Pratt, convicted of murder in 1972. And his greatest triumph came when a judge in Orange County reversed that conviction 25 years later.
Pratt, who now calls himself Geronimo ji Jaga, told The Times on Tuesday that Cochran was “truly a soldier fully dedicated to making sure that the rights of the oppressed be defended.”
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 Wilshire Boulevard, maintaining his legal headquarters there even as the street’s glamour faded. For rising black professionals of his generation, a Wilshire 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 halfway across the country to California and began an upward climb from working as a pipe fitter in 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 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. In “A Lawyer’s Life” the attorney wrote that his father stressed education and working hard “to reach our fullest potential. 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, he earned a degree from Loyola Law School in 1962. The summer after his first year at Loyola, he married Barbara Berry.
The couple eventually had two girls -- Melodie and Tiffany -- but the marriage began to crumble. Before they divorced, he had a relationship with Patricia Sikora, who bore him his only son, Jonathan, now a California Highway Patrol officer -- something Cochran loved reminding critics who said he hated all peace officers.
As a college-age man, Cochran wrestled with his feelings about a white world that saw him as black before anything else, a concept of duality that he said 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,” the attorney wrote in “Journey to Justice,” his first memoir. “
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, since many of those people showed signs of severe beatings.
“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.
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 to death. The officer who stopped him said later that he had reached into the car to grab the ignition key and that the car had lurched forward, causing the gun to discharge accidentally.
The shooting outraged a black community 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 district attorney 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 inquest, Cochran took on other cases that challenged Los Angeles 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 although a former Black Panther Party rival, Julius Butler, had testified against Pratt, Cochran had been confident that the system would exonerate his client.
Only years later would he learn that Butler 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 its case against Simpson -- and others would accuse Cochran of using similar methods to defend his client.
The attorney 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, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. John K. Van de Kamp chose Cochran to be assistant district attorney, the No. 3 position in the office, and suggested that 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 Eulia Love, a black woman they said had 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, however, Cochran and Gil Garcetti, then a deputy district attorney, changed the way prosecutors investigated police shootings. They initiated the policy of having a prosecutor and a district attorney’s investigator go immediately 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 district attorney’s office in 1981 and soon took on another case that would become a benchmark for the Los Angeles area.
After a traffic stop, police in Signal Hill booked Cal State Long Beach football player Ron Settles on suspicion of 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 had apparently hanged 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, it did issue a majority verdict that Settles had not killed himself but “died at the hands of another.” Cochran also helped the Settles family win a $760,000 judgment.
Later, in Los Angeles, Cochran was part of a group that successfully argued before the Police Commission that the bar-arm chokehold should be banned.
In the 1980s, he worked on burnishing his reputation as a premier attorney and player in Los Angeles. Mayor Tom Bradley, his mentor and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brother, appointed him to the Airport Commission, which oversaw expansion of Los Angeles International Airport and the awarding of contracts to run it.
And in court, Cochran was winning millions of dollars in awards for people injured or killed by the police. Most notably, he and law partner Eric Ferrer secured a $9.2-million judgment for Patty Diaz, a 13-year-old Latina sexually assaulted in her home by an LAPD officer. At the time it was the largest award resulting from LAPD misconduct ever granted by a trial jury, although the plaintiff later agreed to the reduced sum of $4.5 million.
In the middle of his rise as an attorney, Cochran’s personal life took a turn. As airport commissioner, he was attending a 1981 conference when he met Dale Mason, an executive for an Atlanta-based concessionaire. He and Mason, 13 years his junior, were married at the Bel-Air Hotel in 1985.
Dale Mason Cochran survives him, as do his son, Jonathan; daughters, Tiffany Cochran Edwards and Melodie Cochran; sisters, Pearl Baker and Martha Jean Sherrard; and father, Johnnie L. Cochran Sr.
The attorney 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 victory in that trial, there was hardly a prominent civil rights or police abuse case that Cochran 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 being co-host of 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 Amadou Diallo, the unarmed immigrant whose fatal 1999 shooting by New York police in the Bronx stirred national outrage, 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 the 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. Last Tuesday, Cochran was at the center of a case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court after a former client picketed his law offices with signs accusing him of being a crook and a liar. Cochran sued for defamation.
A California court had found for Cochran and barred the defendant, Ulysses Tory, from orally making any statements about Cochran, a judgment that Tory argued violated his 1st Amendment rights. Chemerinsky, one of Tory’s attorneys, argued the case before the high court.
The one case Cochran stayed involved with more than two decades was Pratt’s.
“Some people would say that Cochran abandoned the case. I know better,” said Hanlon, who spent 23 years on the matter. “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, but he also lent his credit card to the effort. “We were broke,” Hanlon said.
Because the court hearing was transferred from L.A. to the Orange County courtroom of a conservative judge, Cochran’s presence was key.
“I was a known radical,” Hanlon said. “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 County district attorney declined to retry him. Cochran helped Pratt secure the $4.5-million settlement of a false-imprisonment suit.
“There are so many cases I believe in,” said Cochran in the 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.”
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Some notable cases
Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. was already well known in Southern California when he successfully defended O.J. Simpson in the renowned 1994 murder case. Here are some other notable cases handled by Cochran:
1972: Unsuccessfully represents Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt in a murder case. The former Black Panther Party leader and Vietnam veteran’s case is reversed in 1997. Cochran later helps Pratt settle a false-imprisonment suit for $4.5 million.
1981: Represents family of Cal State Long Beach football star Ron Settles, maintaining that he died as a result of a chokehold while in Signal Hill police custody. The coroner’s inquest finds that Settles died at the hand of another.
1992: His firm wins a $9.2-million judgment in the sexual assault of 13-year-old Patty Diaz by an LAPD officer. It was then the largest jury award for LAPD misconduct. It was later reduced to $4.5 million.
1993: Helps pop star Michael Jackson settle the initial molestation allegation.
1993: Represents Reginald O. Denny in an unsuccessful suit against the LAPD for failure to protect the white truck driver who was beaten at the start of the 1992 riots.
2001: Represents Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant brutally assaulted by New York City police. Louima wins an $8.75-million settlement from the city.
2001: Wins acquittal of rap star Sean Combs on weapons and bribery charges.
2003: Wins a record-setting $700-million environmental pollution settlement against Monsanto, Pharmacia and Solutia for exposing about 18,000 Anniston, Ala., residents to PCBs, which are toxic.
Sources: Times research, www.thetennessee
Tobin & Associates.
Los Angeles Times