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Johnnie L. Cochran, 1937-2005

Showy, Tenacious Lawyer Rode Simpson Murder Trial to Fame

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page A01

Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., 67, the dogged lawyer whose emotional, sometimes flamboyant courtroom summations played to national audiences during his successful defense of O.J. Simpson, died March 29 at his home in Los Angeles. He had an inoperable brain tumor.

Having established himself as a successful and well-known lawyer in police brutality and civil rights cases, Cochran became a cultural and legal sensation with his leading role in the Simpson murder case in 1995. His strategy focusing on Simpson's race as well as some memorable turns of phrase -- "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit," he said of the bloodstained glove that he claimed was too small for Simpson -- helped win an acquittal of the Hall of Fame football star-turned-actor in the death of his ex-wife and her friend.


After the Simpson trial, Cochran defended many other celebrities who had run-ins with the law, including rap mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs in 2001. The media were always on hand. (Zuma Press)

_____Johnnie Cochran Dies_____
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_____From The Post_____
The Silent Persuader (The Washington Post, Oct 3, 1994)
O.J. Simpson's Defensive Linemen (The Washington Post, Jan 21, 1995)
Simpson Defense Decries Rush to Judgment (The Washington Post, Sep 28, 1995)

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He was part of the so-called "Dream Team" of attorneys who systematically dismantled the seemingly precise timeline of events in which the prosecutors had linked Simpson to the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Cochran played a big role in destroying the credibility of Mark Fuhrman, the police detective who helped collect key evidence against Simpson and denied ever using racial epithets. Cochran found such remarks in a taped discussion between Fuhrman and a screenwriter.

Robert Shapiro, a Simpson co-counsel, later said the legal team played the race card "from the bottom of the deck." In his 1996 memoir, "Journey to Justice," Cochran replied: "If some people insist in comparing a double-murder trial to a card game, then they ought to be honest enough to admit that we played the history and credibility cards."

John Burris told USA Today at the time that Cochran's strategy was both brilliant and unexpected. Where the defense is usually guided by emotional resonance with a jury and the prosecution by hard facts, "Cochran essentially switched the roles. By relying on logic, he seized the high ground back."

He was castigated by some in journalistic and legal circles, however, for a showboating style that they found offensive and self-serving.

Cochran occasionally was lampooned for his distinctive courtroom approach, perhaps most memorably on the TV show "Seinfeld" as the rhyming legal vulture Jackie Chiles. But Cochran often appeared as himself in similar skits, winking at his cultural status.

As a former prosecutor in Los Angeles County, Cochran's early legacy was fostering changes in the handling of police shooting cases. In private practice, he also was well-regarded for his prowess in police brutality cases and was reported to have won more than $45 million in judgments. He liked to say his career was equal representation for O.J. and "no-Js"; among the latter was Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, who had been sodomized in a N.Y. police station and for whom Cochran won an $8.75 million settlement. He called helping win the release of Black Panther Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, who spent 27 years in jail on a murder charge before being freed, "the happiest day of my life practicing law."

To the public mind, Cochran was forever linked with such troubled athletes and entertainers as Jim Brown, when the football legend was accused of rape, and singer Michael Jackson, when he was accused of child molestation.

Cochran was known for his colorful wardrobe and his high living, thinking nothing of flying friends around the world to catch a boxing match. He owned Jaguars and Rolls-Royces and was active as a commentator on celebrity trials.

Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. was born Oct. 2, 1937, in Shreveport, La.; his middle initial stood for nothing.

His father moved the family to Los Angeles, where he became a prosperous insurance salesman but remained, to his son, strangely ascetic. He shunned bigger homes and cars, which Cochran later said made him acutely aware of what his wealthier white neighbors had. "One kid I knew had an archery range at his house," he once told The Washington Post. "I never even thought of that! That's why to this day I work hard. I wanted to provide that for my family."

His mother sold Avon products and encouraged his ambitions. She was also fond of aphorisms: A stitch in time saves nine. Your eyes are bigger than your plate. Cochran described them as "platitudinal things I happen to believe."


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