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 against
murder charges, died Tuesday. He was 67.
Cochran died of an inoperable brain tumor at his home in the Los Feliz
section of Los Angeles, said his brother-in-law Bill Baker. The tumor
was diagnosed in December 2003, Baker said.
Initially, 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, which largely draw their cachet from his presence.
But Cochran confirmed in a September 2004 interview with The Times that
neurosurgeon Keith Black at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles
was treating him.
Long before his defense of Simpson, Cochran challenged what many viewed
as the Los Angeles Police Department's misconduct toward people under
arrest, at a time when the court system still ignored that behavior and
victims took it for granted.
From the 1960s on, when he represented the widow of Leonard Deadwyler, a
black motorist killed during a police stop in Los Angeles, Cochran took
brutality cases to court. He won historic financial settlements and
helped bring about lasting changes in police procedure.
His clients weren't always black: He unsuccessfully represented Reginald
O. Denny, the white trucker beaten by a mob during the 1992 riots after
the not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating were announced.
Instead of arguing, as he often did, that police had been brutal on the
job, Cochran contended that the trucker's civil rights had been violated
when police failed to do their jobs at all upon being ordered to
withdraw from the intersection of Florence Avenue and Normandie Street,
a flash point of the riots where Denny was pulled from his big rig and
By the time Simpson was accused of murder in 1994, Cochran was "larger
than life" in the city's black community, said Kerman Maddox, a
political consultant and longtime L.A. resident. After the Simpson case,
that profile would expand, earning him new admirers, as well as new
detractors who considered him a racially polarizing force.
His successful defense of Simpson against charges of murdering his
ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, a waiter and
casual friend of hers, 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."
Resplendently tailored and silky-voiced, clever and genteel, Cochran
came to epitomize the formidable litigator, sought after by the famous
and wealthy, the obscure and struggling, all believing that they were
victims of the system in one way or another.
He was able to connect with any jury, and in his most famous case, the
Simpson trial, he delivered an eloquent, even lilting 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 - actually conceived by
co-consul Gerald F. Uelmen during a strategy session - referred to the
defense's overall assessment of the evidence.
But it most evoked the moment in the trial when Simpson appeared to
struggle to put on what were presumed to be the murderer's bloody gloves
- one of which was found at the crime scene, the other outside Simpson's
"He could walk into court and charm the pants off a jury," said Leslie
Abramson, a leading defense attorney now retired. "But it wasn't snake
oil. He could figure out the essence of the case - of how ordinary
people would view the law, the facts - and the equity, the sense of
justice. He always had it figured out. And he had it figured out in
Simpson. And the prosecutors never did."
Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky agreed. "I think you
could have given that case to a lot of talented lawyers and O.J. would
have been convicted," he told The Times in late 2004.
Cochran inspired law students and attained a level of stardom rare for a
lawyer and even rarer for a black lawyer. One of his most important
legacies was the transforming effect of an African American man
achieving that degree of success.
However, the Simpson criminal trial defined 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."
After graduating from UCLA, he earned a degree from Loyola Law School in
In 1978, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. John K. Van de Kamp chose
Cochran to be assistant district attorney, the No. 3 position in the
office, and suggested that he change the system from the inside. Cochran
left his $300,000-a-year practice for the $49,000 salaried job, becoming
the first African American to hold it.
But change came slowly. He lost a debate with his bosses over filing
manslaughter charges against police officers who killed Eulia Love, a
black woman they said had threatened them with a knife. The police had
been called to her home after Love, overdue on her gas bill, allegedly
used a shovel to shoo away gas company employees.
Later, however, Cochran and Gil Garcetti, then a deputy district
attorney, changed the way prosecutors investigated police shootings.
They initiated the policy of having a prosecutor and a district
attorney's investigator go immediately to the scene of every police
shooting, a move designed to make the investigation impartial. No longer
would the government rely entirely on police investigations of their own
In the 1980s, he worked on burnishing his reputation as a premier
attorney and player in Los Angeles. Mayor Tom Bradley, his mentor and
Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brother, appointed him to the Airport
Commission, which oversaw expansion of Los Angeles International Airport
and the awarding of contracts to run it.
"Clients of all races are now no longer hesitant to retain black lawyers
to represent them in significant cases," said Winston Kevin McKesson, a
black criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles. "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."