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Lawyer's Family Tragedy Inspires Hitler Reference

September 30, 1995|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

The story behind Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s riveting and controversial closing argument--which compared a discredited LAPD detective to Hitler--begins with the family tragedy of Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Charles Lindner.

"When Johnnie and I started talking about Fuhrman, I brought up my mother's experiences in Munich from 1925 to 1933 when her grandparents sent her to the United States after Hitler came to power," Lindner, former president of the Criminal Courts Bar Assn., said Friday.

"Her entire family was killed in the gas chambers by a house painter who was crazy and no one took him seriously until it was too late," said Lindner, 48.

Lindner, who worked behind the scenes on the writing of Cochran's closing argument, said he recounted his family history to O.J. Simpson's lead trial lawyer during the last week.

"I was trying to get Johnnie into the frame of mind to talk about [former Los Angeles Police Detective] Mark Fuhrman as the personification of evil," Lindner said.

Cochran's remarks touched off a furor. Fred Goldman, the father of murder victim Ronald Lyle Goldman, held a news conference to denounce Cochran: "We have seen a man who perhaps is the worst kind of racist himself . . . someone who compares a person who speaks racist comments to Hitler, a person who murdered millions of people."

Both the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center also condemned Cochran.

"However vile Fuhrman's words have been, the comparison to Hitler's deeds is insulting and demeaning to the millions of his victims and to a world that was racked by war for six years. The metaphor trivializes a profound historical tragedy," the ADL said in a formal statement.

Fuhrman has for more than a year been the pivotal figure in the defense's contention that Simpson was framed on charges of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Goldman on June 12, 1994. During the trial, it was revealed that Fuhrman had lied about using the word "nigger," and witness Kathleen Bell testified that Fuhrman told her, 'If I had my way . . . all the niggers would be gathered together and burned."

In his closing argument Thursday, Cochran made the comparison this way:

"There was another man not too long ago in the world who had those same views who wanted to burn people, who had racist views and ultimately had power over people in his country. People didn't care. People said he's just crazy. He's just a half-baked painter. And they didn't do anything about it. This man, this scourge became one of the worst people in this world, Adolf Hitler, because people didn't care, didn't try to stop him . . .

"And so Fuhrman, Fuhrman wants to take all black people now and burn them or bomb them. That's genocidal racism."

Lindner said he was "surprised when Johnnie referred specifically to Hitler. I thought he'd just say Nazis. The theme of our conversations was if you leave people like this uncontrolled terrible things happen."

But he insisted that the criticisms of Cochran were unfair.

"Remember, Marcia Clark, who is also Jewish, said Fuhrman 'shouldn't be on the planet' in her closing argument. She and I are both Jewish and we understand evil. I am a Jew. I was the stimulus for Johnnie's comments. And for those who say that Hitler is proprietary to the Jews, he isn't. What we were trying to convey, what Johnnie was trying to convey, is that we shouldn't allow men like this--either Hitler or Fuhrman--to have control over people's lives," Lindner said.

Cochran's remarks were "an explosion of utterly personal raw emotion but at the same time calculated to make a point," said Lindner. "It was exactly what I wanted and I think it was incredible in its impact."

Cochran praised Lindner as a skilled writer who provided useful assistance in his preparation of the closing argument.

Cochran said almost every member of the defense assisted in the preparation of his closing argument. He said Gerald F. Uelmen, F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck and Carl E. Douglas played key roles.

"Gerry came up with the 'If it doesn't fit you must acquit' line right after the prosecution's glove debacle in June," Cochran said. "We started talking about that part of the summation right then." He also credited Uelmen, "a very religious man," with the biblical passage from Luke that says if a man is shown to be untrustworthy on little things, he should be distrusted about big things too.

Cochran said Bailey played a key role in developing the defense's attack on the prosecution time line, that Scheck worked with him on the overall structure and that Douglas helped him trim down a draft done by Lindner, after Cochran had given Lindner an overview outline of what Cochran called, "The Journey Toward Justice."

Then Cochran said, "the ending was me and the idea to put on the knit cap was me. That hat was me."

On Friday, Cochran for the first time responded to criticism of his invocation of the Holocaust and Hitler. The defense lawyer said the uproar hurt him deeply.

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