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For The Defense : Johnnie Cochran's Whole Career Has Been A Prelude To What Is Happening In Courtroom 103

January 29, 1995|MICHAEL J. GOODMAN | Contributing editor Michael J. Goodman's last piece for the magazine chronicled the tobacco industry's public relations campaign

The ribbon on the Cochran package is his sometimes dapper, sometimes peacockish courtroom ensemble. Cochran has been known to wear cream, purple or lavender hand-tailored suits that cost up to $2,000, and he has a preference for custom-made shirts that range from $125 to $400.

Some dismiss Cochran as a consummate actor; others say his charm is genuine. Regardless, his effect upon a jury seems to be magical. "Johnnie Cochran is the most perfect attorney in the world for O.J. Simpson," says Ira Reiner, the former district attorney. Even Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who heads the prosecution against Simpson, can't help but praise the man who might determine his political future: "The smartest thing O.J. Simpson ever did was hire Johnnie Cochran."

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WORKERS ARE HUSTLING TO FINISH SIX NEW OFFICES AT COCHRAN'S LAW firm on Wilshire Boulevard. He opened the firm with one attorney in 1981. Now his all-minority staff number more than 20, among them 10 attorneys, including partner Carl E. Douglas, who has just been named "Trial Attorney of the Year" by the John M. Langston Bar Assn. The door of the firm reads: "The Law Offices of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr." The other lawyers are listed in smaller type. (Cochran winces when that is pointed out. "Hey, I'm changing that. I plan to change that.") The decor--glass and chrome, various shades of black, white and gray--speaks in hushed tones of this firm's success.

Last year, the firm billed more than $5 million to clients such as the Automobile Club of Southern California, the Atlantic Richfield Co., the L.A. County Transportation Commission and USC. Although the bulk of the firm's work consists of lawsuits against local police agencies on behalf of ordinary citizens, its public reputation has come from representing such figures as actor Todd Bridges (acquitted of attempted murder and attempted voluntary manslaughter, former football star Jim Brown (rape charges were dismissed), rap singer Tupac Shakur (accused of assault) and truck driver Reginald O. Denny (in his civil suit against the LAPD).

"We work Saturdays," Cochran says. "The new lawyers that come in here will say: 'God, we can't believe you work so hard.' People say that I am really driven. I am. I'm still doing far too much. People ask: 'Why are you here on Saturday and Sunday?' Because I still love it. I wanna do it. I have to do it. If anything frightens me, it's failure."

From the time he graduated from Loyola Law School in 1962, Cochran set out to master the Los Angeles legal system by working both sides of the street. He spent two years in the city attorney's office (1963-65) and two years as the No. 3 lawyer in the district attorney's office (1978-80), the first African American to hold that position. But most of Cochran's career has been in private practice, taking on some of the thorniest, most controversial cases in the city.

Cochran's first big case established the style and direction of his career. In 1966, he represented the wife of Leonard Deadwyler, a young black man shot and killed by a Los Angeles police officer at the end of a 90 m.p.h. chase. Drunk but unarmed, Deadwyler thought his pregnant wife was in labor (it turned out that she was suffering from kidney pains) and was rushing her to the hospital. It took place nine months after the Watts riots, and politicians and police feared the worst. Los Angeles authorities made an unprecedented decision to televise the coroner's inquest and to allow Cochran, as the attorney for the victim's family, to interrogate witnesses. he had to relay questions through the deputy district attorney.

For eight days, the city was captivated. Although the inquest jury voted 6-3 that Deadwyler's death was accidental homicide, the television footage of Cochran revealed a presence and smoothness that print could never capture. He may have lost the case (Cochran's law firm later filed a civil suit that it also lost), but it forged his reputation as a champion against racist prosecution.

Cochran's next prominent case--defending Elmer ji Jaga (Geronimo) Pratt, a Black Panther on trial, Cochran produced a Polaroid photograph, supplied by Pratt's brother, showing that his client had a mustache and "chin hair," while the prosecution claimed the murderer was cleanshaven. The photograph, Cochran claimed, was taken in 1968, just after the killing. But a Polaroid official testified that particular film wasn't manufactured until May 28, 1969. Cochran says he was "shocked and stunned." Pratt was sentenced to life in prison, and the case remains a cause celebre.

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