Cochran in May 2001
|Born||Johnnie L Cochran, Jr.
October 2, 1937
Shreveport, Louisiana, U.S.
|Died||March 29, 2005
Los Feliz, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Brain tumor|
|Alma mater||University of California, Los Angeles (B.A.)
Loyola Law School (J.D.)
Johnnie L Cochran, Jr. (October 2, 1937 – March 29, 2005) was an American lawyer best known for his leadership role in the defense and criminal acquittal of O. J. Simpson for the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman.
Cochran also represented Sean Combs during his trial on gun and bribery charges, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Todd Bridges, football player Jim Brown, Snoop Dogg, former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, 1992 Los Angeles riot beating victim Reginald Oliver Denny, and inmate and activist Geronimo Pratt. He represented athlete Marion Jones when she faced charges of doping during her high school track career. Cochran was known for his skill in the courtroom and his prominence as an early advocate for victims of police brutality.
Johnnie L Cochran, Jr. ("L" was his full middle name) was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. His father was an insurance salesman, and his mother sold Avon products. The family relocated to the West Coast during the second wave of the Great Migration, settling in Los Angeles in 1949. Cochran went to local schools and graduated first in his class from Los Angeles High School in 1955. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in business economics from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1959 and a Juris Doctor from the Loyola Law School in 1962. He was a member and 45th Laurel Wreath Wearer of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.
Inspired by Thurgood Marshall and the legal victory he won in Brown v. Board of Education, Cochran decided to dedicate his life to practicing law. Cochran felt his career was a calling, a double opportunity to work for what he considered to be right and to challenge what he considered wrong; he could make a difference by practicing law. In A Lawyer's Life, Cochran wrote, "I read everything that I could find about Thurgood Marshall and confirmed that a single dedicated man could use the law to change society".
Despite setbacks as a lawyer, Cochran vowed not to cease what he was doing, saying: "I made this commitment and I must fulfill it."
After passing the bar in 1963, Cochran took a job in Los Angeles as a deputy city attorney in the criminal division. In 1964, the young Cochran received one of his first celebrity cases, Lenny Bruce, a comedian who had recently been arrested on obscenity charges. Two years later, Cochran entered private practice. Soon thereafter, he opened his own firm, Cochran, Atkins & Evans, in Los Angeles.
In his first notable case, Cochran represented an African-American widow who sued several police officers who had shot and killed her husband, Leonard Deadwyler. Though Cochran lost the case, it became a turning point in his career. Rather than seeing the case as a defeat, Cochran realized the trial itself had awakened the black community. In reference to the loss, Cochran wrote in The American Lawyer, "those were extremely difficult cases to win in those days. But what Deadwyler confirmed for me was that this issue of police abuse really galvanized the minority community. It taught me that these cases could really get attention."
Los Angeles County District Attorney's office
In 1978, Cochran returned to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office as its first black assistant district attorney. Though he took a pay cut to do so, joining the government was his way of becoming "one of the good guys, one of the very top rung." He began to strengthen his ties with the political community, alter his image, and work from within to change the system.
Return to private practice
Five years later, Cochran returned to private practice, reinventing himself as "the best in the West" by opening the Johnnie L Cochran, Jr. law firm. In contrast to his early loss in the Deadwyler case, Cochran won US$760,000 for the family of Ron Settles, a black college football player who, his family claimed, was murdered by the police. In 1990, Cochran joined a succeeding firm, Cochran, Mitchell & Jenna, and joined Cochran, Cherry, Givens & Smith in 1997. The Cochran Firm has grown to have regional offices located in fifteen states.
In most of his cases Cochran represented plaintiffs in tort actions, and he opposed tort reform. Due to his success as a lawyer, Cochran could encourage settlement simply by his presence on a case. According to Rev. Jesse Jackson, a call to Johnnie Cochran made "corporations and violators shake."
Cochran's well-honed rhetoric and flamboyance in the courtroom has been described as theatrical. His practice as a lawyer earned him great wealth. With his earnings, he bought and drove cars such as a Jaguar and a Rolls-Royce. He owned homes in Los Angeles, two apartments in West Hollywood, and a condo in Manhattan. In 2001, Cochran's accountant estimated that within five years the attorney would be worth US$25–50 million.
Even before the Simpson case, Cochran had achieved a reputation as a "go-to" lawyer for the rich, as well as a successful advocate for minorities in police brutality and civil rights cases. However, the controversial and dramatic Simpson trial made Cochran more widely known, generating a variety of opinions about him.
Cochran had often liked to say that he worked "not only for the OJs, but also the No Js". In other words, he enjoyed defending or suing in the name of those who did not have fame or wealth. Cochran's most glorious moment as a lawyer, he believed, was when he won the freedom of Geronimo Pratt. Cochran said he considered Pratt's release "the happiest day" of his legal practice. In the words of the Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, Cochran "was willing to fight for the underdog." Rev. Jesse Jackson believed Cochran was the "people's lawyer." Magic Johnson proclaimed Cochran was known "...for representing O. J. and Michael, but he was bigger and better than that".
O. J. Simpson
During closing arguments in the Simpson trial, Cochran uttered the now famous phrase, "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." He used the phrase, which had been devised by fellow defense team member Gerald Uelmen, as a way to try to persuade the jury that Simpson could not have murdered Nicole Brown Simpson nor Ron Goldman. In a dramatic scene, Simpson appeared to have difficulty getting the glove on; stained with blood of both victims and Simpson, it had been found at the crime scene.
Cochran did not represent Simpson in the subsequent civil trial for the same murders; Simpson was found liable for the deaths. Cochran was criticized during the criminal trial by pundits, as well as by prosecutor Christopher Darden, for suggesting that the police were trying to frame Simpson because they were racist. Cochran told the majority-black jury that police officers were trying to frame Simpson because of his race.
Robert Shapiro, co-counsel on the Simpson defense team, accused Cochran of dealing the "race card" "from the bottom of the deck." In response, Cochran replied it was "not a case about race, it is a case about reasonable doubt...", noting "there are a lot of white people who are willing to accept this verdict."
On September 8, 2012, Darden said that the late Cochran had tampered with the glove that was at the center of the Simpson trial.
Cochran successfully represented Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant in New York City who was sodomized with a plunger while in police custody. Louima was awarded an $8.75 million settlement, the largest police brutality settlement in New York City. Tension broke out between Louima's original lawyers and the new team headed by Cochran. The former team felt that Cochran and his colleagues were trying to take control of the entire trial.
In 2002, Cochran told Combs that this would be his last criminal case. After that trial, Cochran retired. He later declined to represent R. Kelly and Allen Iverson in criminal cases, who had asked for his services.
Illness and death
In December 2003, Cochran was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. In April 2004, he underwent surgery, which led to his staying away from the media. Shortly thereafter, he told the New York Post he was feeling well, and that he was in good health.
On March 29, 2005, he died at his home in Los Angeles, from the brain tumor. Public viewing of his casket was conducted on April 4, at the Angelus Funeral Home and April 5, at Second Baptist Church, in Los Angeles. A memorial service was held at West Angeles Church of God in Christ, in Los Angeles, on April 6, 2005. His remains were interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. The funeral was attended by numerous former clients and friends.
On May 31, 2005, two months after Cochran's death, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its opinion on Tory v. Cochran. The court ruled 7–2 that in light of Cochran's death, an injunction limiting the demonstrations of Ulysses Tory "amounts to an overly broad prior restraint upon speech". Two justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said that Cochran's death made it unnecessary for the court to rule. Lower courts, before Cochran died, held that Tory could not make any public comments about Cochran in any way.
- On January 24, 2006, Los Angeles Unified School District officials unanimously approved the renaming of Mount Vernon Middle School, Cochran's boyhood middle school, to Johnnie L Cochran, Jr. Middle School in his honor. The decision received mixed responses.
- In 2007 the three-block stretch of the street in front of the school was renamed "Johnnie Cochran Vista".
- In 2007, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles opened the new Johnnie L Cochran Jr. Brain Tumor Center, a research center headed by noted neurosurgeon Keith Black, who had been Cochran's doctor.
- Cochran's family created an endowed chair, the Johnnie L Cochran, Jr. Chair in Civil Rights, at his alma mater, Loyola Law School of Loyola Marymount University.
In popular culture
After the Simpson trial, Cochran was a frequent commentator on law-related television shows. Additionally, he hosted his own show, Johnnie Cochran Tonight, on CourtTV. With the Simpson fame also came movie deals.
Cochran was satirized in the animated sitcom South Park, in which he appears using a confusing legal strategy called "the Chewbacca defense", a direct parody of his closing argument when defending O.J. Simpson.
Cochran took these parodies in stride, discussing them in his autobiography, A Lawyer's Life. Additionally, he appeared as himself in The Hughleys, Family Matters, The Howard Stern Show, Arli$$, CHiPs '99, Bamboozled, Showtime, and JAG.
Courtney B. Vance won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for playing Cochran in The People v. O. J. Simpson (2016), the first season of the FX true crime anthology television series, American Crime Story.
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