Simpson trial made attorney `larger than life'

`Dream Team' lawyer vaulted to celebrity status

Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. : 1937 - 2005

March 30, 2005|By Carla Hall | Carla Hall,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 on murder charges, died yesterday afternoon. He was 67.

Mr. Cochran died at his home in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles of an inoperable brain tumor, said his brother-in-law Bill Baker. Mr. Cochran's wife and his two sisters were with him at his death.

Mr. 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 that largely draw their cachet from his presence.

But Mr. Cochran confirmed in a September 2004 interview with the Los Angeles Times that he was being treated by a neurosurgeon, Keith Black, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Long before his defense of Mr. Simpson, Mr. Cochran was challenging misconduct in the Los Angeles Police Department.

From the 1960s on, when he represented the widow of Leonard Deadwyler, a black motorist killed during a police stop in Los Angeles, Mr. Cochran took police abuse to court. He won historic financial settlements and helped bring lasting changes in police procedure.

He also unsuccessfully represented Reginald Denny, the white trucker who was beaten by a mob during the 1991 riots that followed the not guilty verdicts in the trial of police officers charged with assaulting Rodney King.

Instead of arguing, as he often did, that police had been brutal, Mr. Cochran contended that the trucker's civil rights had been violated because police didn't do their jobs when they withdrew from a South Los Angeles intersection where rioting was fierce and Denny was beaten.

By the time Mr. Simpson was accused of murder in 1994, Mr. Cochran was "larger than life" in the city's black community, said Kerman Maddox, a political consultant and longtime Los Angeles resident.

After Mr. Simpson, Mr. Cochran's profile would expand, earning him new admirers and new detractors who considered him a racially polarizing force.

Mr. Cochran's successful defense of Mr. Simpson against charges of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman, a waiter and friend of Nicole Simpson's, 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, he delighted in the attention and even played along, showing up in the occasional movie or TV show in a cameo role as himself.

Mr. Cochran came to epitomize the formidable litigator, sought after by the famous and wealthy, the obscure and struggling, all believing in some way they were victims of the system.

He could figure out how to connect with any jury, and in his most famous case, the Simpson trial, he delivered to the jurors an eloquent 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 referred to Mr. Cochran's overall assessment of the prosecution's evidence. However, it most evoked the moment during the trial when Mr. Simpson appeared to struggle to put on what were presumed to be the killer's bloody gloves - one of which was found at the murder scene, the other outside Simpson's house. As a result, the line is often quoted as "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit" - an adaptation that Cochran made in his 2002 book, A Lawyer's Life.

Winston Kevin McKesson, a black criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, said Mr. Cochran made great strides for black lawyers. "Clients of all races are now no longer hesitant to retain black lawyers to represent them in significant cases," Mr. McKesson said. "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 Mr. 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," Mr. Cochran wrote.

More galling and perplexing to him was the criticism that came after the Simpson verdict. Though many legal experts marveled at Mr. Cochran's skill, a parade of critics - TV pundits and newspaper columnists, California's then governor, the Republican Pete Wilson, and even his own co-counsel, Robert Shapiro - decried a legal strategy that put the competence and character of the Los Angeles Police Department on trial.

"Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck," Mr. Shapiro said in a TV interview after Mr. Simpson was acquitted by a jury of nine African-Americans, two whites and one Latino. (All but two were women.)

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