Archive for Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran dies

Attorney who helped win acquittal for O.J. Simpson had brain tumor

March 30, 2005

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— Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who became a legal superstar after helping clear O.J. Simpson during a sensational murder trial in which he uttered the famous quote "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit," died Tuesday. He was 67.

Cochran died of an inoperable brain tumor at his home in Los Angeles, his family said. Cochran, who was diagnosed with the tumor in December 2003, was surrounded by his wife, Dale, and two sisters when he died.

"Certainly, Johnnie's career will be noted as one marked by 'celebrity' cases and clientele," his family said in a statement. "But he and his family were most proud of the work he did on behalf of those in the community."

With his colorful suits and ties, his gift for courtroom oratory and a knack for coining memorable phrases, Cochran was a vivid addition to the pantheon of America's best-known barristers.

The "if it doesn't fit" phrase would be quoted and parodied for years afterward. It derived from a dramatic moment during which Simpson tried on a pair of bloodstained "murder gloves" to show jurors they did not fit. Some legal experts called it the turning point in the trial.

Soon after, jurors found the Hall of Fame football star not guilty of the 1994 slayings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

"Johnnie is what's good about the law," Simpson said in a telephone interview from Florida. "I don't think I'd be home today without Johnnie."

Champion for blacks

For Cochran, Simpson's acquittal was the crowning achievement in a career notable for victories, often in cases with racial themes. He was a black man known for championing the causes of black defendants. Some of them, like Simpson, were famous, but more often than not they were unknowns.

Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. puts on a knit ski cap in this
Sept. 27, 1995, file photo, to disprove the prosecution's theory
that double-murder defendant O.J. Simpson wore a cap to hide his
identity the night of the murders. Cochran, whose televised murder
defense of Simpson made him a legal superstar, died Tuesday of a
brain disorder. He was 67.

Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. puts on a knit ski cap in this Sept. 27, 1995, file photo, to disprove the prosecution's theory that double-murder defendant O.J. Simpson wore a cap to hide his identity the night of the murders. Cochran, whose televised murder defense of Simpson made him a legal superstar, died Tuesday of a brain disorder. He was 67.

"The clients I've cared about the most are the No Js, the ones who nobody knows," said Cochran, who proudly displayed copies in his office of the multimillion-dollar checks he won for ordinary citizens who said they were abused by police.

By the time Simpson called, the byword in the black community for defendants facing serious charges was: "Get Johnnie."

Over the years, Cochran represented football great Jim Brown, actor Todd Bridges, rappers Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.

"He was a brilliant strategist who never lost touch with the common man," said Sanford Rubinstein, an attorney who worked with him on the case of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, who was tortured by New York police. "He took particular pride in standing up with those who were wrongfully treated. He truly loved people and the public adored him."

He also represented former Black Panther Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. When Cochran helped Pratt win his freedom in 1997 he called the moment "the happiest day of my life practicing law."

Simpson was held liable for the killings following a 1997 civil trial and ordered to pay the Brown and Goldman families $33.5 million in restitution. Cochran did not represent him in that case.

Outside of court

After Simpson's acquittal, Cochran appeared on countless TV talk shows, was awarded his own Court TV show, traveled the world over giving speeches, and was endlessly parodied in films and on such TV shows as "Seinfeld" and "South Park."

In "Lethal Weapon 4," comedian Chris Rock plays a policeman who advises a criminal suspect he has a right to an attorney, then warns him: "If you get Johnnie Cochran, I'll kill you."

Cochran enjoyed that parody so much he even quoted it in his autobiography, "A Lawyer's Life."

"It was fun. At times it was a lot of fun," he said of the lampooning he received. "And I knew that accepting it good-naturedly, even participating in it, helped soothe some of the angry feelings from the Simpson case."

Flamboyant in public, he kept his private life shrouded in secrecy, and when some of those secrets became public following a 1978 divorce, they were startling.

His first marriage, to his college sweetheart, Barbara Berry, produced two daughters, Melodie and Tiffany. During their divorce, it came to light that for 10 years Cochran had secretly maintained a "second family," which included a son.

When that relationship soured, his mistress, Patricia Sikora, sued him for palimony and the case was settled privately in 2004.

Although he frequently took police departments on in court, Cochran denied being anti-police and supported the decision of his only son, Jonathan, to join the California Highway Patrol.

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