Johnnie Cochran Biography
Longed for the Good Life, Took First Race-Related Case
Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. led the winning team of lawyers in what has been known as the "trial of the century," and in the process became arguably the most famous lawyer in the world. Cochran's successful defense of former football great O. J. Simpson against charges of murder in the televised trial was followed by millions of Americans. Although his trial tactics still spark debate, his legal acumen and ability to sway a jury characterized his distinguished legal career. While the People v. O. J. Simpson is perhaps Cochran's most well known courtroom victory, it was proceeded and followed by a string of significant court cases, some involving superstars such as Michael Jackson and others involving ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Ebony magazine once described Cochran as "a litigator who'd taken the cases people said he might win when hell freezes over, then laughed all the way to the bank when the multimillion-dollar verdicts came rolling in."
Handsome and well spoken, Cochran was established in the West-Coast power elite well before his defense of O. J. Simpson. After the trial, he was one of America's foremost attorney celebrities. Though he was detested in some circles as an opportunist, he was just as widely admired as an African-American success story. Cochran told Essence that he was never bothered by his detractors. "I have learned not to be thin-skinned, especially when I think I'm doing the right thing," he said. "It's not about money, it's about using the law as a device for change."
Longed for the Good Life
Johnnie Cochran, Jr. was born in 1937 in Shreveport, Louisiana, and is the great-grandson of a slave. He grew up in a prosperous and stable family, with a father and mother who stressed education, independence, and a color-blind attitude. While Cochran was still young the family moved to Los Angeles, and he attended public schools there, earning excellent grades. Although his father had a good job with the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, Cochran always managed to find friends who had more money and more luxuries than he did. "If you were a person who integrated well, as I was, you got to go to people's houses and envision another life," he recalled in The American Lawyer. "I knew kids who had things I could only dream of. I remember going to someone's house and seeing a swimming pool. I was like, 'That's great!' Another guy had an archery range in his loft. An archery range! I could not believe it. I had never thought about archery! But it made me get off my butt and say, 'Hey, I can do this!'"
Cochran earned a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1959, supporting himself by selling insurance policies for his father's company. He was accepted by the Loyola Marymount University School of Law and began his studies there in the autumn of 1959. "I was the kind of student that didn't want to look like a jerk, always raising my hand," Cochran recalled in The American Lawyer. "But I would sit there and pray that I would be called on. That was my competitive spirit lying in wait."
Having finished his law studies and passing the California bar by 1963, Cochran took a job with the city of Los Angeles, serving as a deputy city attorney in the criminal division. There he worked as a prosecutor. In 1965 he entered private practice with the late Gerald Lenoir, a well-known local criminal lawyer. After a short period with Lenoir, he formed his own firm, Cochran, Atkins & Evans. "That was the closest to a storefront I ever had," Cochran remembered in The American Lawyer. Johnnie Cochran's career was launched from this office with a highly publicized and inflammatory case.
Took First Race-Related Case
In May of 1966, a young black man named Leonard Deadwyler was shot dead by police as he tried to rush his pregnant wife to the hospital. Cochran represented Deadwyler's family, who accused the police of needless brutality in their son's murder. The Los Angeles Police Department insisted that the officers had acted in self-defense. "To me, this was clearly a bad shooting," Cochran maintained in The American Lawyer. "But the [district attorney] did not file charges, and when our firm filed a civil suit we lost. 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."
Another memorable case further steered Cochran toward working on behalf of his race. In the early 1970s he went to court in defense of Geronimo Pratt, a Vietnam War veteran who was convicted of a murder on a tennis court in Santa Monica, California. Many speculated that he was put away because of his leadership role in the Black Panther Party. Cochran lost that case too, but he insisted that Pratt was railroaded by the F.B.I. and local police. "White America just can't come to grips with this," Cochran explained in Essence. "To them the police are as they should be: saving children, acting like heroes in the community. They aren't setting up people, they're not lying, they aren't using their racist beliefs as an excuse to go after certain people." Cochran continued to work on the case long after Pratt was imprisoned, and finally in 1997 he was able to get an Orange County judge to overturn Pratt's sentence and free him. He sued the state of California for wrongful imprisonment and won Pratt $4.5 million.
Such headline-grabbing cases quickly made Cochran's name known among the black community in Los Angeles. By the late 1970s, he was handling a number of police brutality and other criminal cases. In an abrupt about-face in 1978, however, he joined the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. Cochran has said that he took the job because he wanted to broaden his political contacts and refashion his image. "In those days, if you were a criminal defense lawyer, even though you might be very good, you were not considered one of the good guys, one of the very top rung," he explained in The American Lawyer.
Cochran's position at the district attorney's office did not spare him a brush with racist police. One afternoon as he drove his two young daughters across town in his Rolls Royce, he was pulled over. The police yelled at him to get out of the car with his hands up, and when he did he could see that they had drawn their guns. "Well, talk about an illegal search and seizure!" Cochran exclaimed in The American Lawyer, recalling the event. "These guys just go through ripping through my bag. Suddenly this cop goes gray. He sees my number three badge from the D.A.'s office! He's like, 'Ahh! Ahh!' They all go apologetic. I never got stopped again, but I'm careful not to make any weird moves. I might get shot!"
Cochran never publicized the incident, but he was deeply disturbed about its effect on his two daughters. "I didn't want to tell them it was because of racism," he added. "I didn't want to tell them it happened because their daddy was a black guy in a Rolls, so they thought he was a pimp. So I tried to smooth things over. … As an African American, you hope and pray that things will be better for your children. And you don't want them to feel hatred."
Became the "Best in the West"
Returning to private practice in 1983, Cochran established himself as "the best in the West," to quote Ebony magazine. One of his first major victories occurred in the case of Ron Settles, a college football player who police said had hanged himself in a jail cell after having been picked up for speeding. On behalf of Settles' family, Cochran demanded that the athlete's body be exhumed and examined. A coroner determined that Settles had been strangled by a police choke hold. A pre-trial settlement brought the grieving family $760,000.
The Settles case was the first in a series of damage awards that Cochran won for clients—some observers estimate he has won between $40 and $43 million from various California municipalities and police districts in judgments for his clients. Essence reporter Diane Weathers wrote: "Cochran is not just another rich celebrity lawyer. His specialty is suing City Hall on behalf of many fameless people who don't sing, dance or score touchdowns and who have been framed, beaten up, shot at, humiliated and sometimes killed at the hands of the notorious LAPD."
Success bred success for Cochran. The Settles case was followed by another emotional case in which an off-duty police officer molested a teenager and threatened her with bodily harm if she told anyone. In that case Cochran spurned an out-of-court settlement of six figures and took the issue to the courtroom, where a jury awarded his client $9.4 million. A post-verdict settlement paid the young woman $4.6 million.
Took Celebrity Cases
As Cochran's fame grew, his client list began to include more celebrities, which included pop singer Michael Jackson. On Jackson's behalf, Cochran arranged an out-of-court settlement with a boy who had accused the singer of molestation. Cochran had the case retired in such a way that the charges against Jackson were withdrawn, and Jackson could publicly proclaim his complete innocence. Cochran also engineered an acquittal for Diff'rent Strokes star Todd Bridges, who stood accused of attempted murder.
No celebrity trial was more closely followed than O. J. Simpson's trial, however. In the summer of 1994, Simpson was arrested and charged with the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. Simpson declared that he was innocent, and he engaged Cochran as part of an expensive "dream team" of lawyers dedicated to his defense. Before long, Cochran had replaced Robert Shapiro as leader of the "dream team" as the matter was brought to trial. Calling the O. J. Simpson trial a "classic rush-to-judgment case," Cochran vowed to win an acquittal for the football star-turned-television celebrity. Responding to questions about the nickname for his legal team, Cochran told Time : "We certainly don't refer to ourselves as the Dream Team. We're just a collection of lawyers …trying to do the best we can."
One week into the Simpson trial in February of 1995, Time reported that Cochran had "unveiled an unexpectedly strong defense." With his engaging manner and sincerity, Cochran sought to poke holes in the case against Simpson as presented by district attorneys Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden. Piece by piece he challenged the evidence, paying special attention to the racist attitudes of one of the investigating officers, Mark Fuhrman.
Cochran was effective—and controversial—in his closing arguments on Simpson's behalf. He claimed his client had been framed by a racist police officer, and that if such injustice were allowed to persist, it could lead to genocide as practiced by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Speaking to the jury, Cochran concluded: "If you don't speak out, if you don't stand up, if you don't do what's right, this kind of conduct will continue on forever." After deliberating only four hours, the mostly black jury found Simpson not guilty on all counts.
Observers called Cochran's remarks the "race card," and some castigated the attorney for proceeding in this manner. Cochran offered no apologies for his strategy, claiming that his scenario represented the truth as he saw it. "I think race plays a part of everything in America, let alone this trial," he maintained in a Newsweek interview. "That's one of the problems in America. People don't want to face up to the fact that we do have some racial divisions."
Life After O.J.
After handling the post-trial publicity, Cochran returned to other cases, including pending civil litigation against Simpson. The trial had a huge impact on Cochran's life. Once a celebrity lawyer only in Los Angeles, he became a celebrity lawyer across America. Cochran had his share of negative publicity as well. His first wife, Barbara Berry Cochran, wrote a memoir during the Simpson trial in which she accused Cochran of abuse and infidelity. "I did a lot of stupid things," Cochran admitted in Essence when asked about his private life. "I paid a price with my eldest daughter and with my [first] marriage. I would like young lawyers not to make the mistakes I made." In response to many of the questions and practices he had followed both professionally and personally, Cochran published Journey to Justice, an autobiographical work that focused on his early influences, his career path up to and including the Simpson case, and where he hoped to take his passion for civil rights activism through law in the future. He also began appearing regularly on the Courtroom Television Network first as a co-contributor on the show Court TV: Inside America's Courts and then on his own show a few years later.
Many people speculated that Cochran might retire after settling the Pratt case, as he had off-handedly commented on many occasions, but Cochran forged ahead in his fight against police and governmental abuse against African Americans. In early 1998 he took on the case of four men who were shot by New Jersey police during what Cochran called a "racial profiling" traffic stop. When asked why he was taking on the case, Cochran commented during a New York City news conference that, "this case is a catalyst more then anything else," hoping to stir the American public into taking interest in what their protection agencies were actually doing while on the streets.
Even though Cochran was at the top of his game professionally, he still faced trials and tribulations in his personal life. In November of 1998, Cochran's brother RaLonzo Phlectron Cochran was found murdered in Los Angeles from gunshot wounds. In a statement released by the Cochran family, RaLonzo was described as "yet another victim of the senseless violence that so often permeates our society." Added to this was a long arduous case that Cochran brought against the New York Post for libel, claiming that remarks made about him in a column hurt his reputation and caused him emotional distress. The case was eventually settled out of court, but no retraction was ever published.
None of this seemed to slow Cochran as he continued to take on high profile cases. In 2001 Cochran represented Sean "P. Diddy" Combs against charges of gun possession and purportedly bribing a witness to change his testimony. Cochran, true to his track record, was able to convince a jury that Combs had not broken any laws. Cochran also brought a case to the courts in 2001 where he represented numerous clients who had begun smoking before the age of 18 and wished to reclaim the money they spent on smoking from the tobacco companies, alleging that the tobacco companies unfairly advertised to their age bracket and coaxed them into buying cigarettes.
In late 2001 Cochran opened the Cochran Firm in Memphis, Tennessee, to practice civil law. Along with four other attorneys, Cochran hoped to use his name to help clients who would not otherwise get what he considered "proper" representation. As Julian Bolton, the managing partner of the Cochran Firm's Memphis office put it to the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "We have seen a large segment of the population that feels somewhat powerless in the courtroom and in official circles. … They want and need a hero like Mr. Cochran." The Cochran firm eventually established offices in thirteen states. Cochran also found time to join new organizations, becoming a board member of TransAfrica Forum, a group looking to foster constructive United States policies towards Africa and the Caribbean.
Engaged Larger Social Issues
Cochran felt that the battle for fairness for all Americans was long from over. Along with his move to open the Cochran Firm, Cochran also turned his attention from police abuse to the broader scope of racial inequality in all facets of society. One of his first major cases in this vein was when he joined a team lead by Cyrus Mehri in a suit against the Coca-Cola company in 2000, accusing them of unfairness to African Americans in the form of unequal wages, prejudiced evaluations, and lack of promotions. Coca-Cola settled out of court, but refused to admit to any wrongdoing. Cochran and Mehri did not stop there, however, instead turning their sights on industry giant Johnson & Johnson, which they claimed was guilty of similar practices. The case had not yet settled, but when asked to comment on why he targeted such large companies, Cochran joked to the Corporate Counsel, "The bigger the giant, the bigger the fall."
Cochran also hoped to gain the support of the American public in his crusade against racism and unfair practices in sports. In early 2002 he brought an anti-trust suit against stock car racing giant NASCAR, owned by the France family, claiming that they were discriminating against smaller companies such as Speedway Motorsports Inc. by owning both the organization that runs all of the major stock car races in the United States as well as International Speedway Corporation which owns 13 of the major tracks where NASCAR is raced yearly. Almost a year later, he took the fight to one of the oldest sports in the United States, challenging the National Football League (NFL) to hire more minority coaches or face a lawsuit dealing with unfair hiring practices based on race. As Cochran told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "There are many problems, but one of the biggest is that there doesn't seem to be a hiring criteria where blacks are concerned." Well before a suit was filed, the NFL began making changes to its internal processes.
Quite wealthy and married for a second time, Cochran lived in a luxurious home overlooking the Los Angeles basin. Approaching the age of 70, Cochran told Newsweek that he wanted to initiate a "healing" between the races in America. If that is to happen, he believed, white America will have to become more sympathetic to the hardships facing African Americans. "It doesn't make sense for us to go back into our individual camps after this is over," he noted. "African Americans … respond to what I have to say. I spoke what they feel is happening, and I spoke it as an African American lawyer. … I don't want to exacerbate racial problems. But you have to be true to who you are. … This is not for the timid." Cochran's dream was not yet realized when he passed away as the result of an inoperable brain tumor at his home on March 29, 2005. He was widely eulogized as one of the finest African American lawyers of the twentieth century, a man who used his vast talents to pursue justice for his people.
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Ralph G. Zerbonia, and