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 and settled in Los Angeles in 1949. Cochran later graduated first in his class from Los Angeles High School in 1955. He went on to receive 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."
Cochran took a job in Los Angeles as a deputy city attorney in the criminal division after he passed the California bar in 1963. In 1964, the young Cochran received one of his first celebrity cases, Lenny Bruce, who had recently been arrested on obscenity charges, and Cochran was assigned the case. Two years later, he entered private practice and soon opened his own firm, Cochran, Atkins & Evans, in Los Angeles. In his first notable case, Cochran represented a widow who sued several police officers, who had shot and killed her husband, Leonard Deadwyler. Though Cochran lost the case for his client, 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." By the late 1970s, Cochran had established his reputation in the black community. He was litigating a number of high-profile police brutality and criminal cases.
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 he 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 was an opponent of tort reform. Due to his success as a lawyer, Cochran could encourage settlement simply by his presence on a case. According to 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 in police brutality and civil rights cases. However, the controversial and dramatic Simpson trial made Cochran widely known, with opinions of him ranging widely.
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 Harvard Law 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 and Ron Goldman, because a bloodstained glove found at the scene of the crime did not fit him, as well as more generally that the circumstantial evidence purportedly did not all fit the prosecution's case. Cochran did not represent Simpson in a civil trial for the same murders in which Simpson was found liable. Cochran was criticized by pundits, as well as by prosecutor Christopher Darden, for bringing up the issue of race. Cochran told the mainly black Simpson jury that police officers were trying to frame O. J. 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, Cochran was accused by Darden of tampering with the glove that was at the center of the Simpson trial.
Alan Dershowitz, one of the members of Simpson's defense team, wrote in his book, Taking the Stand, "Marcia Clark may not have been the most sophisticated prosecutor I ever encountered, but she certainly was among the most resourceful, employing everything she had to her advantage." Dershowitz writes that Johnnie Cochran told him, that just as he was about to make his closing arguments, Clark came over and whispered to him, "When you're up there, I want you to think of only one thing: I'm not wearing any underwear." Dershowitz called Clark and asked her if it was true. Clark said, "Absolutely true." Dershowitz then asked her, "Which part of it is true: that you told him you weren't wearing underwear or that you weren't, in fact, wearing any underwear?" Clark replied, "That's one thing you'll never know."
Cochran successfully represented Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant 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 2001, Sean (P. Diddy) Combs was indicted on stolen weapons charges as well as bribery. Soon thereafter, Combs hired Cochran. Cochran effectively fought for Combs' freedom, with Combs winning an acquittal.
In 2002, Cochran told Combs that this would be his last criminal case. After that trial, he retired, and later declined to represent R. Kelly and Allen Iverson in criminal cases, when they asked for his services.
Illness and death
In April 2004, Cochran underwent surgery, which led to him staying away from the media. Shortly thereafter, he told the New York Post he was feeling well, and that he was in good health. He died at his home in Los Angeles on March 29, 2005 from a brain tumor which had been diagnosed in December 2003.
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 and a memorial service was held at West Angeles Church of God in Christ, on April 6, 2005 in Los Angeles. 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.
In honor of Cochran, 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, saying he was an "extraordinary, superb lawyer with movie-star celebrity status." There have been mixed reactions about the board of education's decision, primarily because of Cochran's work as a lawyer. For instance, the sister of Nicole Brown Simpson has expressed her disappointment with the decision, although she called Cochran "a great defense attorney." After the school was renamed, city councilman Herb J. Wesson Jr. proposed that the city also rename a section of 17th Street adjacent to the school; Wesson said that Cochran was "a great attorney and a great role model who contributed to this community." 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.
In popular culture
After the Simpson trial, Cochran himself was a frequent commentator on law-related television shows. Aside from being featured on television shows, he hosted his own show, Johnnie Cochran Tonight, on CourtTV. With the Simpson fame also came movie deals.
Cochran took these parodies in stride, discussing them in his autobiography, A Lawyer's Life. 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 first season of the FX true crime anthology television series, American Crime Story, which is named The People v. O. J. Simpson.
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