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Flashy, Deft Lawyer Known Worldwide

Famous for heading Simpson 'Dream Team,' he was proudest of freeing Geronimo Pratt.

March 30, 2005|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., the masterful attorney who gained prominence as an early advocate for victims of police abuse then achieved worldwide fame for successfully defending football star O.J. Simpson against murder charges, died Tuesday. He was 67.

Cochran died of an inoperable brain tumor at his home in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, said his brother-in-law Bill Baker. The tumor was diagnosed in December 2003, Baker said.

Initially, Cochran, his family and colleagues were secretive about his illness to protect the attorney's privacy as well as the network of Cochran law offices, which largely draw their cachet from his presence. But Cochran confirmed in a September 2004 interview with The Times that neurosurgeon Keith Black at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles was treating him.

Simpson praised Cochran on Tuesday from his home in Florida.

"I've got to say, I don't think I'd be home today without Johnnie," the Hall of Famer told Associated Press. "Johnnie is what's good about the law. He loved the system. I always tell people, if your kids or your loved ones got in trouble, you would want Johnnie. Even his adversaries respected him."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 31, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Cochran obituary -- The obituary of attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. in Wednesday's Section A misspelled the last name of writer and black liberationist W.E.B. Du Bois as Dubois. Also, in some editions, the list of Cochran's survivors failed to include his father, Johnnie L. Cochran Sr.

Long before his defense of Simpson, Cochran challenged what many viewed as the Los Angeles Police Department's misconduct toward people under arrest, at a time when the court system still ignored that behavior and victims took it for granted.

From the 1960s on, when he represented the widow of Leonard Deadwyler, a black motorist killed during a police stop in Los Angeles, Cochran took brutality cases to court. He won historic financial settlements and helped bring about lasting changes in police procedure.

His clients weren't always black: He unsuccessfully represented Reginald O. Denny, the white trucker beaten by a mob during the 1992 riots after the not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating were announced.

Instead of arguing, as he often did, that police had been brutal on the job, Cochran contended that the trucker's civil rights had been violated when police failed to do their jobs at all upon being ordered to withdraw from the intersection of Florence Avenue and Normandie Street, a flash point of the riots where Denny was pulled from his big rig and attacked.

By the time Simpson was accused of murder in 1994, Cochran was "larger than life" in the city's black community, said Kerman Maddox, a political consultant and longtime L.A. resident. After the Simpson case, that profile would expand, earning him new admirers, as well as new detractors who considered him a racially polarizing force.

His successful defense of Simpson against charges of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, a waiter and casual friend of hers, vaulted him to the rank of celebrity, beseeched by autograph-seekers and parodied on "Saturday Night Live" and "Seinfeld." His name was invoked by movie characters, one of whom boasted in the 1997 film "Jackie Brown" that his lawyer was so good, "he's my own personal Johnnie Cochran."

Ever aware of his public image, the attorney delighted in the attention and even played along, showing up in the occasional movie or TV show in a cameo role as himself.

Resplendently tailored and silky-voiced, clever and genteel, Cochran came to epitomize the formidable litigator, sought after by the famous and wealthy, the obscure and struggling, all believing that they were victims of the system in one way or another.

He was able to connect with any jury, and in his most famous case, the Simpson trial, he delivered an eloquent, even lilting closing argument.

He famously cast doubt on the prosecution's theory of the case, saying: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." The line -- actually conceived by co-consul Gerald F. Uelmen during a strategy session -- referred to the defense's overall assessment of the evidence.

But it most evoked the moment in the trial when Simpson appeared to struggle to put on what were presumed to be the murderer's bloody gloves -- one of which was found at the crime scene, the other outside Simpson's house.

"He could walk into court and charm the pants off a jury," said Leslie Abramson, a leading defense attorney now retired. "But it wasn't snake oil. He could figure out the essence of the case -- of how ordinary people would view the law, the facts -- and the equity, the sense of justice. He always had it figured out. And he had it figured out in Simpson. And the prosecutors never did."

Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky agreed. "I think you could have given that case to a lot of talented lawyers and O.J. would have been convicted," he told The Times in late 2004.

Cochran inspired law students and attained a level of stardom rare for a lawyer and even rarer for a black lawyer. One of his most important legacies was the transforming effect of an African American man achieving that degree of success.

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