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Johnnie Cochran, 10 Years On

The high-profile lawyer, who is fighting a serious illness, has struggled not to be defined by the O.J. Simpson case alone.

June 12, 2004|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. once wrote of the O.J. Simpson murder case, "At the end of that trial, not one of the participants walked out of that courthouse the same person he had been only months earlier."

And among the major players in that courtroom drama, one of the few who emerged more successful than when he entered was the lead defense attorney, Johnnie Cochran.

Many others left with their reputations sullied, fairly or not. Judge Lance Ito -- criticized as an ineffectual jurist. Prosecutors Marcia Clark and Chris Darden -- losers. O.J. Simpson -- freed from jail yet a social pariah in his former haunts.

Today, on the 10th anniversary of the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, Cochran remains on the national stage, a celebrity with all the attendant perks and pitfalls.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Cochran argument -- A June 12 article in the California section on Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. said the attorney proved that football star Ron Settles died as a result of a chokehold while in police custody. Although Cochran argued before a jury at a coroner's inquest that Settles was killed in his jail cell and the jury issued a majority verdict that Settles "died at the hands of another," the jury did not specify how he died.

Known for his keen mind, dapper dress and a graceful oratorical style that stops short of flamboyance, he is sought-after, honored, parodied in TV comedies and invoked by movie characters demanding a lawyer.

Cochran, 66, also finds himself grappling with a serious illness. Attorney Jonathan Cole, representing Cochran in a 1st Amendment case last month, asked the U.S. Supreme Court for an extension because Cochran was suffering from "an undisclosed brain injury or illness."

Cochran turned down requests for interviews, but his brother-in-law, Bill Baker, said Friday that Cochran had undergone "a procedure for a neurological condition" early this year and had spent the past few months recuperating at his Los Feliz home. Baker said he is "anticipating a complete recovery."

Cochran even went to the Lakers basketball game last Sunday, Baker said. "He's not appearing in court," he said, "but he is continuing to oversee the management of the firm."

That Los Angeles-based law firm spread franchise-like across the country after the Simpson trial and Cochran has forged partnerships with other firms. He had a legal hand in many of the high-profile civil liberties cases of the past decade and a few of the criminal ones before he swore off that kind of work four years ago.

Colleagues suggest that Cochran gave up criminal work because it is grueling and demanding, whereas civil cases allow him more challenges spread over more cases.

As controversial as the Simpson outcome was, people seemed to separate their feelings about the verdict from the man who won it. Cochran became one of the best-known lawyers in the country -- a notable achievement in a profession still dominated by whites.

"People recognize if you want a good lawyer, a great lawyer, you hire Johnnie Cochran," says Barry Scheck, a DNA legal expert and a key member of the Simpson defense team. "It seems to me the most effective lawyer in the United States is African American. Whether you're white or black, you'd hire him, and I think that's a pretty big statement."

At the same time, Cochran's critics have been vocal. The plaintiffs in one prominent class-action suit complained that his fees -- and those of the other attorneys involved -- were exorbitant. And at least a few lawyers have accused him of snatching away clients.

"All of a sudden God is knocking on the door, and you don't say no to God," says Pasadena attorney Joe Hopkins. "Johnnie will always say [clients] come to him. But the question is, why didn't they go to him in the first place? Why does he always end up coming in at the end?"

Hopkins contends that Cochran swooped in and took the case of Donovan Jackson -- the teenager who was roughed up by Inglewood police -- away from him. Cochran has contended that the family wanted him on the case.

And as sometimes happens with actors blessed, or cursed, with a signature role, Cochran has struggled not to let the Simpson case define him, portraying it as a significant, but not seminal, event in his professional life. As the years go on, he still finds himself defending his use of race in the trial and still answering the question of whether he believes Simpson is innocent.

"If the timeline is correct, it would be pretty impossible," Cochran said two years ago when asked if Simpson did it.

Cochran has continued to defend his suggestion during the trial that Simpson was singled out by police because he is black.

"Race was involved in this case from its very inception," said attorney Carl Douglas, a member of the Simpson defense team. "He would have been committing malpractice to ignore the obvious."

Before the Simpson case came along, Cochran had already become well known as an advocate for victims of police abuse. He represented the family of college football star Ron Settles -- arrested by the police in 1981 and found dead in his Signal Hill jail cell -- by proving Settles died as a result of a police choke hold. And he represented Black Panther Party leader and Vietnam War veteran Geronimo Pratt in a murder case in 1972, which he lost. The charges against Pratt were reversed more than 27 years later.

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