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A Cause Celebre

Johnnie Cochran's empire expands, but his goals remain the same

September 29, 2002|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. likes to say he's the same man now as he was before the O.J. Simpson trial.

Ridiculous. His life is almost unimaginably different. He has been super-sized. His yearlong exposure on TV has inflated almost everything about him: his lifestyle, his goals and his opportunities to achieve them.

Before the trial, Cochran had a single Los Angeles office. Today he is the Cochran Firm, with 120 lawyers in eight states--and growing. His web of informal legal alliances extends nationwide, in a structure so complex that even Cochran cannot easily explain it. He may expand to the Caribbean, he says.

Cochran now works on about 50 cases at any one time, often in as many different locations. His private jet facilitates such a workload.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 29, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 214 words Type of Material: Correction
Johnnie Cochran--The article on Johnnie Cochran in today's Southern California Living section incorrectly states that his two daughters are by his current wife, Dale Cochran. Daughters Melodie and Tiffany are from his first marriage, to Barbara Jean Berry.

Before the trial he was a well-known figure in certain Southern California legal circles. Now his face and name are known everywhere there is CNN. He may be the first private citizen in history to have such a huge worldwide recognition factor. Strangers send champagne to his table, he is whisked to the front of movie lines, he is parodied on TV, referred to in films. In Soweto, South Africa, little children saw him and sang "The Johnnie Cochran Song." At the Louvre in Paris, he was swarmed by well-wishers. On his first New York subway trip, riders greeted him, and one woman asked him to autograph her Bible.

Cochran's attempts to grapple with this new Imax-sized public image--and to make worthwhile use of it--may ultimately be more interesting to cultural historians than the trial that made him so famous.

Meanwhile, he's written a legal memoir, "A Lawyer's Life" (St. Martin's Press, with David Fisher), out next month. It's his second book since the infamous trial and in it, he weaves together his pre- and post-Simpson cases, to show why he should not be defined by that one case.

On a recent day in his glass-walled Wilshire Boulevard offices, Cochran emphasized that the Simpson case, although it had the sexy plot points of a box office blockbuster, was routine for him in a legal sense. Just one more example of an accused man receiving as much justice as he could pay for.

"If Simpson had been poor, he'd be in jail right now, whether he was innocent or guilty," Cochran says. "In this system, you are innocent until proven broke. When you are broke, you are pretty much finished. That's the way it is, not the way it's supposed to be."

He knows many people think he's "some kind of one-shot, flash-in-the-pan lawyer who used legal mumbo-jumbo and got this guy off that they thought was guilty."

But it was neither his bad rhymes nor his passionate prose that won the case, he says. Simpson could afford the best DNA legal experts (Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck) and detectives to find evidence like the Mark Fuhrman tapes. "Fuhrman swore under oath he'd never used the word 'nigger.' On the tapes he used it frequently. He committed perjury in a murder trial. It destroyed his credibility." There are people, Cochran says, who say the prosecution lost its case because the police tried to frame a guilty man.

Does Cochran think Simpson did it? "Nobody knows but the murdered and the murderer," he says. "But if the timeline is correct, it would be pretty impossible."

The case was important to Cochran's career mostly for the wave of opportunities that flowed from it, he says. He was 57 at the time. For 30 years before that, he had been taking on police departments and the municipalities that funded them. He was so successful and proud of his work long before the Simpson trial that he had been considering retirement. He had enough money, he says. He also had two homes in Los Angeles (Los Feliz and Marina del Rey), multiple cars (including a Rolls-Royce)--and the satisfaction that he had found justice for many clients.

Long before Simpson, he was well known for lawsuits that alleged police abuse against his mostly minority clients--and for winning large settlements from local municipalities that allowed such abuse to exist. It was a controversial tactic. Many accused him of earning his living by fleecing taxpayers, who ultimately paid the money that Cochran won.

Charles Ogletree, professor and associate dean at Harvard Law School, says Cochran may not have been well known before the so-called "trial of the century," but decades before Simpson he was revered in the black community, an inspiration to aspiring black lawyers.

"They all knew there was a lawyer from Louisiana that would fight for justice. The cases he took weren't about money. They focused on aspects of law enforcement that were known to be brutal, abusive and often unfair to black suspects." He was trying to correct injustice long ago when, as a young lawyer, he took the case of Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt. (Cochran lost that case; Black Panther leader Pratt was convicted in 1972 of murdering a schoolteacher and sentenced to 25 years to life. But Cochran never stopped working to free Pratt, whose conviction was overturned 27 years later, in 1997.)

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