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THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : THE DEFENSE: A Rising Star : With a string of courtroom successes, Johnnie Cochran has emerged as a top defense attorney and an influential black leader.

October 04, 1995|GREG KRIKORIAN and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Huckster or champion of civil rights, a soldier in the battle for equal justice or a snake oil salesman pure and simple, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. has been called many things over his long law career. For the moment, we can call him the nation's most celebrated criminal defense attorney. And maybe more than that.

For as surely as his defense of O.J. Simpson led to a stunning, lightning-quick acquittal, Cochran has emerged as one of the most influential black voices in America.

"He is a national hero, especially among African Americans," said former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. "He has taken on a new mantle because they regard his victory in trial as a victory over some racist actions by some members of the Police Department."

Businessman Bondie Gambrell added: "People are looking for a leader and champion of justice in this country, especially blacks. . . . Not since Malcolm X has someone been able to debate publicly against the immoralities that have been perpetrated against black people."

For many, the comparisons to Malcolm X or other giants of civil rights are a stretch.

"Just because someone is prominent doesn't make them a leader," said Aldore Collier, West Coast editor for Johnson Publishing Co., publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines. "I don't think he thinks of himself as a leader. I think he thinks he is just doing his job."

Perhaps.

Even those who praise his skills acknowledge that Cochran's ascension might say as much about a national hunger for new black leaders as it does about his right to join those ranks.

"I wouldn't deny [Cochran] anything," said Gambrell, a prominent African American Democratic fund-raiser for Jesse Jackson and others over the years. "But yeah . . . he stepped into a vacuum. Sure he did."

Unlike others who may have had the chance and blown it, however, Cochran has seized the moment, Gambrell said. And he and others who have known Cochran for years say the 58-year-old attorney has never been one to shrink from the spotlight.

"He loves the glory," Gambrell said.

More of that is sure to come.

When the Congressional Black Caucus held a Washington conference last month, it was not President Clinton or retired Gen. Colin L. Powell who received several ovations or were besieged for autographs. It was Cochran. "Johnnie was well received," said Kim Hunter, a Los Angeles advertising and public relations executive. "The audience of something like 5,000 embraced him. They were very proud."

Long before the Simpson trial began, Cochran was known among trial attorneys nationwide and community leaders locally. After all, before Simpson, he defended Michael Jackson against allegations of molestation. Before Jackson, he was retained by Reginald O. Denny to sue the city after Denny was beaten during the 1992 riots. And before that, Cochran amassed a string of legal victories during a law career that began 32 years ago and included landmark verdicts against police departments.

In 1981, the city of Signal Hill settled, for about $700,000, a case brought by Cochran on behalf of the family of Ron Settles, a black Cal State Long Beach football star who police said committed suicide but who others, including Cochran, charged had been killed in jail by a police chokehold.

Ten years later, Cochran won another groundbreaking case--this one against the city of Los Angeles, where he had served for years as an airport commissioner. In that lawsuit, a jury awarded a record $9.4 million to the family of a 13-year-old girl who had been molested by an LAPD officer.

So before Simpson, Cochran was known to many. But with the Simpson trial broadcast around the world, Cochran's courtroom theatrics held not only a national but an international audience.

"I just got back from Paris and you heard people in the streets, at the little cafes . . . talking about the trial," said Hunter, whose communications company helped Cochran's law firm branch into entertainment law.

Likewise, Bradley said, he heard Cochran's name often during a recent business trip to the Mediterranean. "He is well known there . . . and this [was] before the verdict. Now with this verdict, he will be very much in demand everywhere," Bradley said.

"This has not only national but international notoriety, and the fact that he won the case speaks for itself," said outgoing State Bar Assn. President Donald Fischbach.

Of course, Cochran's stunning victory in the courtroom has not come without a price--to the reputation of the legal system and to the attorney himself, who used bodyguards at the courthouse and installed metal detectors for his Mid-Wilshire office.

Fischbach said his tenure as bar president was shadowed by dozens of calls from people across the country "venting rage" at the courts--and at Cochran. "I had to argue to everybody all year that this was just an aberration," he said.

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