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An A-List Turnout Does Cochran Justice

Celebrity clients are among 5,000 admirers saying farewell to the L.A. attorney who fought for civil rights and police reform.

April 07, 2005|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

In a funeral overflowing with guests and speakers, emotions and stories, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., the charismatic attorney who became a household name after successfully defending O.J. Simpson, was eulogized as a man who saw his real calling in the civil rights cases that he undertook on his "journey to justice."

The 3 1/2 -hour funeral, as extravagant as Cochran's colorful suits, lasted longer than it took the jury to deliberate the fate of Simpson, his most famous client, who sat among the 5,000 worshipers at the West Angeles Cathedral in South Los Angeles.

"The nation needs to understand why we're all here today.... Johnnie Cochran represented to us justice personified," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, noting that when the Los Angeles-based attorney made a second home in New York, where Sharpton lives, he worked on police brutality and racial-profiling cases, among others.

"Johnnie Cochran was to this era what Thurgood Marshall was to the era before," Sharpton said, referring to the civil rights attorney and first black Supreme Court justice who was one of Cochran's idols.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 08, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Cochran funeral -- A photo caption in Thursday's Section A with the story about Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s funeral misspelled the name of Geronimo Pratt as Geronimo Platt.

Directing his gaze at Simpson, Sharpton continued, "With all due respect to you, Brother Simpson, when we heard about the acquittal, we weren't clapping for O.J., we were clapping for Johnnie."

The mourners roared their approval.

"We were clapping because for decades our brothers, our cousins, our uncles had to stand in the well with no one to stand up for them. And finally a black man came and said, if it don't fit -- you must acquit."

The mourners gave a standing ovation as Sharpton delivered Cochran's most famous line from the Simpson trial.

It was one of many dramatic moments during a funeral that, like Cochran, was an engaging and indefatigable mix -- funny and poignant, smart and passionate.

Dr. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, one of the oldest and most influential black churches in the nation -- who, along with Cochran's pastor, Dr. William S. Epps of Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, presided -- gently but repeatedly urged speakers to be brief.

But the people who came to eulogize Cochran just couldn't abide by that. Cochran was just too rich and vivid a figure in their lives. After all, among those gathered under one elegant and expansive roof, were two preachers and former presidential candidates (Jesse Jackson and Sharpton), a music mogul and former Cochran client (Sean "P. Diddy" Combs), a congressman (Charles B. Rangel), a lawyer turned TV personality (Star Jones Reynolds) and the man whose eventual court victory Cochran considered his most important (Geronimo Pratt, now Geronimo ji Jaga).

And those were just some of the two dozen people who spoke to the assembled mourners, including his wife, Dale Mason Cochran, his sisters, his children, and his father, Johnnie L. Cochran Sr. At the front of the church lay the polished coffin covered with white roses, begonias and gladiola. In addition to a choir from the Second Baptist Church, Stevie Wonder performed a song, crooning gently, "I'll be your comfort through the pain.... "

Scattered throughout the church were politicians and activists, members of his law firm, business tycoons and the people who took care of him during his illness. Seated along the wall were 225 red-jacketed members of Kappa Alpha Psi, the venerable black fraternity, who rose from their seats when called upon, creating a blanket of color.

Film director Spike Lee, businessman and former Laker star Magic Johnson, actress Angela Bassett, Los Angeles Councilman Bernard C. Parks, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), attorney Gloria Allred and F. Lee Bailey, a former co-counsel on the Simpson criminal case, were present. Among the people who sat behind the pulpit and waited for their turns to speak were attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who worked with Cochran and also formed a law firm with him to tackle civil rights cases.

Neufeld recalled Cochran taking the case of the Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, who was brutally sodomized by New York police. Neufeld said that in that case as in others, Cochran believed that it wasn't enough to win a large settlement. He also demanded reforms.

"He thought this would be an opportunity not to just deal with police brutality," he said, but to challenge the policy that allowed police officers to decline interrogation for 48 hours. The policy has since been changed.

When Butts called on Cochran's clients in the audience to stand, the group across the main floor of the church included Simpson and Louima.

"I believe Johnnie was a voice for those who could not speak for themselves," Louima said as he listened to the service. Cochran won him an $8.75-million settlement. Louima now lives in Miami. "Besides being my lawyer, he was my friend," he said.

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