Although he has been well known in west coast lawcircles for many years, Johnnie Cochran (born 1937) entered the national spotlight as a member of O. J. Simpson's defense team.
Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. led the winning team of lawyers in 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 are still sparking debate, his legal acumen and ability to sway a jury have characterized his legal career. In fact, the People v. O. J. Simpson is only the most recent and most visible of a string of Cochran's courtroom victories, 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 prior to his defense of O. J. Simpson. Today he is more sought-after than ever as both an attorney and a celebrity. If he is detested in some circles as an opportunist, he is just as widely admired as a black American success story. Cochran told Essence that he has never been 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."
Johnnie Cochran, Jr. was born in 1937 in Shreveport, Louisiana, and is the great-grandson of a slave. He grew up in a stable and prosperous 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!"'
Law Career Beckoned
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 passed 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.
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 former Black Panther who stood accused of murder. Cochran lost that case too, but he insists to this day 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 has continued to press for a re-trial in the Pratt case.
"Best in the West"
Such headline-grabbing cases quickly made Cochran's name among the black community in Los Angeles, and 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 where one of his subordinates was a young lawyer named Gil Garcetti. 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 apoplectic. 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."
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 the behalf of Settles's 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 settlement was the first in a series of damage awards that Cochran has 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 touch-downs and who have been framed, beaten up, shot at, humiliated and sometimes killed at the hands of the notorious LAPD."
Success begot 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 in 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.
As Cochran's fame grew, his client list began to include more celebrities, of which pop singer Michael Jackson is the best known. 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.
The "Trial of the Century"
No celebrity trial was more 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 just 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."
After handling the post-trial publicity, Cochran returned to other cases, including pending civil litigation against Simpson. The trial has had its impact on Cochran's life. Once a celebrity lawyer only in Los Angeles, he is now a celebrity lawyer across America, receiving a million-dollar advance to write his memoirs and a hefty fee for any personal appearances he makes. Cochran has had his share of negative publicity, however. His first wife, Barbara Cochran Berry, wrote a memoir during the Simpson trial in which she accused Cochran of abuse and infidelity. Cochran's longtime mistress, Patricia Cochran, also claims to be writing her own memoir. "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."
Married for a second time, Cochran lives in a luxurious home with a commanding view of the Los Angeles basin. His father, whom he calls "the Chief," lives with him. He has written a book, Journey to Justice, and is planning to take part in a once-a-week commentary for "Court TV" with Atlanta prosecutor Nancy Grace. Having won an acquittal for O. J. Simpson—and having made himself famous in the process—Cochran concluded in Newsweek that he wants to initiate a "healing" between the races in America. If that is to happen, he believes, 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. This case cried out for that. … I don't want to exacerbate racial problems. But you have to be true to who you are. … This is not for the timid."
Further Reading on Johnnie Cochran
American Lawyer, May 1994, p. 56. Ebony, April 1994, pp. 112-16.
Essence, November 1995, p. 86.
Newsweek, January 16, 1995, p. 60; October 9, 1995, pp. 31,34; October 16, 1995, pp. 37-39, 42.
People, April 10, 1995, pp. 55-56.
The Source, January 1996, p. 34.
Time, January 30, 1995, pp. 43-44; February 6, 1995, pp. 58-63;January 1, 1996, pp. 102-03.
U.S. News and World Report, January 23, 1995, pp. 32-35.
Los Angeles Times January 13, 1997, sec: 1, pp. 5.