A Requiem for Johnny Cochran

A Requiem for Johnny Cochran

by Leanne Phillips, December 2009

For many, famed celebrity attorney Johnny Cochran will be remembered as the brilliant lead attorney on O.J. Simpson's defense team; the flamboyant trial attorney who uttered the unforgettable line, "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit,"during his closing argument. Yet, it is a mistake to characterize the Simpson trial as the defining moment of Cochran's career. When Cochran passed away this past Spring, he left a legacy of groundbreaking work that actually set him apart from the pack long before O.J. had even taken the football field.

Johnny Cochran Joins The Civil Rights Movement

Cochran was born October 2, 1937, in Shreveport, Louisiana, the great-grandson of a slave. By 12 years of age, his now prosperous family relocated to sunny Los Angeles, California, many miles from the racially divided South. Yet, despite family wealth, Cochran' always remained socially aware of the injustice haunting the black community, vowing to make a difference.

He took full advantage of the progress taking place around him. Immediately following the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, Cochran was among the first 24 black students enrolled in Los Angeles High School. He later went on to attend UCLA for university and Loyola Law School Los Angeles for law school.

Upon graduating from law school, Cochran served a brief stint in the Los Angeles City Attorney's office. Cochran was disheartened, however, by his work at the City Attorney's office, which consisted in large part of prosecuting Los Angeles Police Department cases against black men. Disenchanted, Cochran left the DA's office to establish a private practice, focusing on those cases benefiting the disenfranchised.

Johnny Cochran's Early Civil Rights Cases

Johnny Cochran effectively discredited the LAPD's investigation into O.J. by relying on his familiarity with LAPD tactics from his earlier civil rights and police misconduct cases.

Soon after establishing his own practice in 1966, Johnny Cochran attempted to file his first lawsuit against the LAPD, in connection with the shooting death of Leonard Deadwyler. Deadwyler, a black man, had been killed by a Los Angeles police officer. Though unsuccessful in bringing charges, Cochran's efforts established him as a formidable civil rights advocate.

Cochran went on to defend former Black Panther party leader and Vietnam veteran Elmo "Geronimo"Pratt, who was charged with robbing and shooting a young white couple. Unsuccessful, Cochran's client went to prison. Yet, Cochran persisted, even personally funding Pratt's appeals when funds ran short. Ultimate, the two prevailed and Pratt's conviction was overturned. Upon his release, Cochran helped to prosecute a civil lawsuit for false imprisonment, resulting in a judgment for Pratt in the amount of $4.5 million.

Perhaps his most admirable trait, Cochran was always willing to put his money where his mouth was. In 1978, he was offered the opportunity to try to change the system from within as the first black assistant district attorney in Los Angeles. Cochran accepted the position, although it meant a cut in his annual salary from $300,000 a year to $49,000 a year. It was this willingness to make financial sacrifices for the sake of pro bono work and other important cases that gave Cochran unmatched credibility in the arena of civil rights.

Johnny Cochran's Civil Rights Legacy

Cochran himself reflected unhappily on the fact that he would be best remembered best for his role in the O.J. Simpson murder trial in his 2002 autobiography, "A Lawyer's Life." However, with his usual good grace and optimism, Cochran recognized that the fame he gained representing O.J. opened up more opportunities for him to help his most cherished clients, the "No J's," those less fortunate community members most in need of a high profile, powerful attorney.

What many do not know is that Cochran was the attorney who represented white truck driver Reginald Denny in a discrimination lawsuit against the LAPD. Denny, as many will remember, was dragged from his truck and beaten by a black mob during the riots following the verdict in the Rodney King case. Cochran argued that, in the aftermath of the King verdict, there was no police presence in the black neighborhood where the assault occurred. Rather than "protect and serve," the LAPD had simply withdrawn from the neighborhood in the midst of heavy rioting, leaving citizens without protection.

Cochran also successfully sued the NYPD after half a dozen New York police officers tortured and brutalized Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Louima was arrested outside a Brooklyn nightclub following a police investigation into a fight. Although Louima was never involved in the fight, NYPD officers made numerous comments regarding his inability to speak English and vowed to teach Louima "to respect a cop."

In 1999, Cochran prosecuted a civil lawsuit against the NYPD for the shooting death of 22-year old Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant from the nation of Guinea. The NYPD arrived at Diallo's front door to question him in connection with a rape investigation. When Diallo opened the front door and reached for his wallet in order to provide identification, police officers opened fire, shooting Diallo 41 times.

Cochran pursued his work in the civil rights arena just as passionately before, during and after the O.J. Simpson trial. Although Cochran recognized the greatest need for his help in the black community, he never confined his fight against injustice to any one segment of the population, as "[an] injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."