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Johnnie Cochran, the Attorney On the People's Defense Team

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page C01

What I remember about Johnnie Cochran has nothing to do with O.J.

It has nothing to do with Johnnie's oratorical skills or his panache, though I have never seen another human being so confidently wear an eggplant suit.

Johnnie Cochran, above, "was willing to fight for the underdog," says Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree. (Nancy Kaye For The Washington Post)

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Famed Lawyer Johnnie Cochran Dies of Tumor

The Johnnie Cochran frozen in my mind was riding up an escalator in a Dallas hotel four years ago, and I was trailing him to get an interview for a magazine piece on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Johnnie was happy to oblige, but I was not the only one who wanted something from him.

I was joined on that escalator by autograph seekers and picture takers, whose ranks were even thicker at the top of the landing. They had spotted Johnnie from a distance and were waiting for him, pens out, Kodak disposables ready to snap. The knot of Johnnie-followers quickly swelled. Some had business offers. Some wanted a job in his firm. Others recounted a horrible injustice done to a relative that could be rectified by only one man, arguably the most famous criminal defense lawyer in America. One guy simply wanted Johnnie to read his poetry.

I took in this display with wonderment, Cochran's skill at handling his renown like it was a glass of water -- and tap water at that. He handed out business cards, told someone to jot down a number, promised a meal next time he was in town. The big shots and the little shots got equal attention, nobody left out or left behind. And then finally Johnnie grabbed my arm, ushering me to a quiet patch of carpet behind a pillar, where he hoped we could escape the attention and I could do the interview. It took half an hour to get to this point, but the moment didn't last long, as the Cochran herd located their man again.

It was a small exercise in observing an outsize American character who retained his authenticity. In the fab-fab world of inflated celebrity, the famous often give very little of themselves to those who adore them. Athletes and entertainers routinely sign their names without even making eye contact, and politicians often appear to be searching for someone more important to talk to. Cochran talked to, took time for, everyone. He was a cheerleader for his craft, the Dick Vitale of the legal profession.

True, we were at the annual convention of the National Bar Association, the nation's preeminent organization of black lawyers and judges. But the gawking and giddiness over his presence went well beyond the gathering. A white woman from the Midwest, on vacation with her family, practically screeched upon coming within fainting range of the smooth attorney. "Oh, my God, that's Johnnie Cochran, isn't it? Oh my God. I just want to meet you."

And so Johnnie introduced himself to the woman and her family, and posed for photos.

Cochran could turn on the charm like crazy. He could make you rethink something you thought you knew. He practiced his principles, one of which was emblazoned on T-shirts for his employees: "Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere." When he took the case of Reginald Denny, the white truck driver dragged from his cab and beaten by black assailants during the Los Angeles riots, some thought Johnnie had lost it. Was he actually going to represent a white guy against the brothers? Even in his own firm, lawyers tried to talk him out of the case. But Johnnie had it all figured out as he filed a $40 million suit against the city: He argued that Denny's civil rights were violated because the cops had deserted the predominantly black neighborhood during the riots and thus had failed to come to Denny's rescue. The suit was eventually dismissed, but in the name of Denny, he had waged a campaign for better police protection for that neighborhood.

Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, who considered Cochran a close friend and mentor, hopes to preserve a legacy for Cochran that transcends his celebrity work for O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson, Jim Brown and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.

"He was willing to fight for the underdog to achieve social justice and equality, particularly when it came to police brutality and excessive use of force," says Ogletree. "The reason an O.J. Simpson would even know about Johnnie Cochran," Ogletree adds, "was because he was successful for 25 years before the Simpson case was even on the radar. That is the Johnnie Cochran I hope that people will remember."

They could've formed a line from the Capitol to Washington Monument yesterday, black luminaries with thoughts on Cochran. They hailed from the spheres of civil rights and entertainment, from law and politics. Some were community activists and street preachers; almost anyone Cochran had touched had something to say. The call-in lines on black radio talk shows were jammed. Cochran's death at 67 on Tuesday from an inoperable brain tumor had caught a whole lot of folks by surprise. Of course the newspapers all used the well-worn catchphrase from Cochran's O.J. defense -- "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." New York's Daily News plastered that gem on its cover. But for those who knew him, Johnnie's gifts went beyond glove gambits in open court.

"He became a national frame of reference for the dispossessed," proclaimed Jesse Jackson, who noted that some of Cochran's cases never actually had to be fought. "The idea that you could call Johnnie, or 'Johnnie is coming to town,' made corporations and violators shake."

Many don't know that after several lucrative years in private practice, Cochran joined the Los Angeles County prosecutor's office for a few years. He took a cut in pay and figured he could help change the system. But on a Saturday afternoon in 1979, as he was driving his Rolls-Royce down Sunset Boulevard -- two of his children in the back seat -- he was pulled over by police.

"Get out with your hands up!" Cochran heard an officer scream through a bullhorn.

The cops had their guns drawn. Cochran's children were crying. The officers searched the car, rummaging through the Euro-style leather clutch he always carried. And, voila, they found his badge from the district attorney's office.

"It was dehumanizing," Cochran recounted to The Washington Post in 1994. But he never filed a complaint and never demanded an official apology. What he did, in his own shrewd way, was to tell the story over and over and over again. It became a signature Cochran anecdote, forever memorialized in magazines and newspapers across the land. The point: Even a black man with a Rolls-Royce and his own initials on his plates can be stopped by police and treated like a criminal.

Some would argue that Cochran baldly injected race into cases, that he exploited race in his practice of the law. And yet he was often a more subtle negotiator than he was given credit for. He also was someone who never felt the need to apologize for being black.

When we finally did grab some time in that Dallas hotel in 2001, Johnnie said something to me that explained a lot about himself and how he wished to be viewed: "I don't care who you are, you want to be regarded well at home. If you're from our community and you've done nothing to uplift your people, I don't know how happy you could be."

Make no mistake, Johnnie Cochran must have been a happy man. A very happy man.

Staff writers Hamil R. Harris and Tamara Jones contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company