Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.
Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. built a reputation as a tough, uncompromising litigator by working on both sides of the courtroom. He has been the third-highest-ranking official of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, and he has fought numerous cases in private practice. The recurrent theme of his career is social justice: Cochran specializes in representing African-American clients he believes have been treated unfairly by the law. His work on behalf of ordinary citizens in police-brutality cases achieved spectacular success in the 1980s and 1990s, ultimately leading to significant changes in Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) policy. High-profile cases for celebrity clients—including Michael Jackson and O. J. (Orenthal James) Simpson—have tended to overshadow his less glamorous accomplishments, for which he has won numerous citations, awards, and courtroom victories. His controversial stewardship of Simpson's defense team in 1995 made him a household name.
Growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he was born on October 2, 1937, Cochran had strong role models in his parents. His mother, a homemaker, ran an Avon business. His father and namesake, Johnnie L. Cochran, Sr., sold policies for Golden State Mutual Life Insurance, a large, black-owned company. Cochran's father moved the family to Los Angeles in 1942, where he was promoted to chief of Golden State's training program. Cochran went on to attend the University of California, Los Angeles, and then Loyola University School of Law. His father remained a great influence and, even in the 1990s, lived in the mansion home of the younger Cochran and his wife. "I think Johnnie got a lot of his ideas about justice from seeing me as he grew up," his father said. "… I tried to make my children sensitive to racism. But we also didn't want them to get consumed by anger." The anger—outrage that became the cornerstone of the young lawyer's career—came later.
Upon graduation from law school in 1962, Cochran wanted to further social justice. Joining the Los Angeles city attorney's office allowed him to do so. As a deputy prosecutor, he represented African-Americans who had been brutalized by Los Angeles police officers. Cases of mistreatment were rife and were getting worse; in 1965, long-simmering racial tensions erupted in widespread rioting in the Watts section of the city. Cochran left for private practice that year and soon had the pivotal case of his young career. He represented the family of Leonard Deadwyler, a young African-American who was shot dead by police officers while rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital. Although Cochran's client lost, the case had lasting personal and professional importance for him. The televised trial made him immediately recognizable in Los Angeles. Moreover, his courtroom performance helped to establish him as a figure whom African-Americans trusted; he later said that the case taught him the importance of police-abuse issues to minority communities.
Cochran had found his cause. He spent much of the next decade in private practice fighting cases involving excessive force or SEXUAL ABUSE by police officers. Most of his clients had little or no money, but, winning time and again, Cochran could afford to take their cases. One loss in court, however, proved to be another turning point in his life. The case of Elmer ("Geronimo") Pratt tested Cochran's faith in the justice system, changed him politically, and troubled him for decades. Pratt was a member of the BLACK PANTHER PARTY FOR SELF-DEFENSE, a radical, African-American political organization of the late 1960s. In 1968, the Santa Monica, California, police accused Pratt of shooting to death a white, female teacher in a tennis court ROBBERY. Pratt had an apparently strong alibi: He claimed to have been in Oakland at the time of the killing, attending a high-level Black Panther party meeting. The alibi was strengthened by the previous identification of a different suspect by the victim's husband. Nevertheless, Pratt was convicted of murder in 1972.
Pratt's conviction shocked Cochran, who attributed it to institutional racism. "It taught me that you can work within the system and believe in it, but if the government wants to get you, they can go out and get you," he told Time Magazine in 1995. "It also taught me that you never stop fighting." Cochran continued to fight for Pratt's release for nearly 25 years, although at least a dozen efforts failed to win PAROLE for his client. Then, in 1994, he uncovered new evidence that suggested that Pratt might have been framed by the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI) in its notorious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which once was aimed at disrupting the Panthers and other radical groups. Cochran alleged that the FBI had wiretapped his telephone and used informants to weaken Pratt's defense, and that it even had lied in court—all illegal efforts. The evidence convinced the Los Angeles district attorney's office to review the case.
Cochran's ultimate success in winning review of Pratt's case was partly due to the influence that he had accumulated over 30 years in Los Angeles. "He deals effectively with everyone, from presidents to common people," John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, told Time Magazine, "and he knows everyone in between." If Cochran is well-connected, it is owing not only to his affability but also to the unique course that his career has taken. Following a decade of successful private practice, he briefly returned to public service as chief administrator of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office in the late 1970s. He was third in command. Working beneath Cochran was Gil Garcetti, who later became district attorney.
Returning to private practice in 1980, Cochran soon took a case that epitomized his professional and moral concerns: It involved a dead African American and disavowals of responsibility by police officers. Ron Settles, a black football player from California State University, had been arrested and jailed for speeding; soon afterward, he was found hanged in his cell. The LAPD called his death a suicide, but Cochran convinced the family to have Settle's body exhumed for a new autopsy—which revealed that Settles had died from being choked. At the time, choke holds were commonly used by Los Angeles police officers when making arrests. In a WRONGFUL DEATH suit, Cochran persuaded a jury that Settles had been choked to death by officers, winning an award for the family of $760,000. He later noted ironically that when he had begun practicing law, "you would be almost held in CONTEMPT of court if you said a police officer was lying." The suit helped to bring about an important reform of LAPD policy: Shortly thereafter, the department banned the use of the choke hold.
Prominent clients flocked to Cochran. He won a dismissal of rape charges brought against football great Jim Brown in 1985. He also secured an acquittal for actor Todd Bridges, star of the television comedy show Diff'rent Strokes. Bridges had been accused of attempted murder, attempted MANSLAUGHTER, and assault with a deadly weapon, but even the testimony of four eyewitnesses did not stop Cochran from winning the case in 1989. Cochran's work for pop singer Michael Jackson achieved only mixed success. After Jackson was accused of sexual molestation of a 13-year-old boy in 1993, Cochran managed to keep the case from going to court. He arranged a controversial private settlement with the boy's family, which reportedly totaled $10 million.
Even when he represents white citizens, race is often an issue. After the epochal Los Angeles riots in 1992, Cochran represented Reginald Denny, a white truck driver whose near-fatal beating by black assailants was broadcast live on television. During the 1993 criminal trial of two suspects, Denny suddenly embraced the defendants' mothers. The spontaneous display of compassion—and apparent lack of any resentment—stunned onlookers. Praising his client, Cochran observed, "I guess he's a lot kinder than you and I." Both defendants were acquitted in a controversial verdict, but Cochran subsequently pursued a separate civil suit against the city of Los Angeles based on a novel legal claim: The suit alleged that police officers violated Denny's CIVIL RIGHTS by failing to come to his aid during the beating because they had chosen not to enter a predominantly black neighborhood.
The preparation of O. J. Simpson's defense initially began without Cochran's participation. Charged in the double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, Simpson brought in Cochran only after hiring Los Angeles defense attorney ROBERT SHAPIRO. As the new leader among several prominent attorneys, Cochran attacked the prosecution for "a classic rush-to-judgment case."
Cochran's work for Simpson divided critics. Legal analysts praised his eloquent OPENING STATEMENT and occasionally brilliant tactics that undermined the prosecutors' lengthy and repetitive case. But Cochran was criticized when the defense began presenting its own case, particularly for calling witnesses whose testimony backfired. Despite the opinions of critics, Cochran's role in the Simpson trial was pivotal. Simpson's acquittal was a resounding victory for Cochran. Shortly after the bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995, several families of victims retained his services in anticipation of bringing their own lawsuits.
Like MARCIA CLARK, his adversary in the Simpson trial, Cochran has found fame and fortune on the lecture circuit. He has given speeches, has moderated panel discussions, and has been a host on COURT TV. In 1998, Cochran published his autobiography, Journey to Justice which recounted his life story and a number of the significant legal cases in which he was involved, including the O.J. SIMPSON TRIAL.
Cochran now focuses his law practice on civil rights and personal injury cases. He has represented clients as diverse as ROSA PARKS and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. In 2002, representatives of Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network announced that it had retained Cochran to represent workers who had been laid off from the Enron Corporation.
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