washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Eugene Robinson

The Defense Rests

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page A27

I guess now I won't be killing anyone. My plan, if I ever did, was to call Johnnie Cochran, but, sadly, his number is no longer in service.

I was also planning to dial that number if I were ever assaulted by the police for the crime of driving while black (or the lesser offense of hanging around while black). I figured that whatever seven-figure settlement he got me for being wrongfully shot, clubbed or Tasered would just about pay his fee for getting me off on a murder charge.

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"If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." With that virtuoso couplet, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. became the best-known lawyer in the world. Those few words came to stand for all the long weeks and months of courtroom wizardry that ultimately freed O.J. Simpson to spend his mornings on the golf course and his afternoons tracking down "the real killer."

The best lawyers usually are total unknowns outside the legal profession, but Cochran was such a celebrity that he couldn't go to even a bar association meeting without being swarmed for autographs. What other attorney could possibly have served as the model for a recurring character on "Seinfeld"? Actor Phil Morris's portrayal of smooth-talking, amoral, opportunistic, irresistible Jackie Chiles became such a part of the show that the character was honored with a big role in the ballyhooed series finale.

Morris had half of Cochran down pat -- the slick theatricality, the rhetorical flourishes that were over the top but somehow sounded just right ("lewd, lascivious, salacious, outrageous") and, of course, the beautiful clothes. Cochran is said to have enjoyed the portrayal; I hope he did.

But the actor missed the other half of Cochran, who died Tuesday of a brain tumor at his home in Los Angeles. We got no hint of the man who was a star in the Los Angeles legal world long before he took the Simpson case, a passionate lawyer best known for civil rights cases in which he held police accountable for flagrant abuses. He was such a dogged advocate that he stuck with one case -- that of Black Panther "Geronimo" Pratt -- for 25 years before finally getting a murder conviction overturned.

And "Seinfeld," because it wasn't that kind of show, didn't touch at all on what Cochran meant to black America, the place Cochran occupied. It's amazing, in this day and age, but we're still celebrating black "firsts." Black men, for the first time, run two of the most potent Wall Street powerhouses and the biggest media conglomerate around (Stanley O'Neal, Ken Chenault, Richard Parsons). A black woman, for the first time, runs an Ivy League university (Ruth Simmons).

Johnnie Cochran was the first black man to be acclaimed as undisputed lord of the courtroom (a status that F. Lee Bailey, among others, had held before him). Winning that throne is about skill but also about reputation, and Cochran's rep was that he could get anybody off. Hey, look what he did for O.J.

Whatever you feel about the Juice, don't hate his lawyer. Personally, I think the evidence against O.J. was compelling, a slam-dunk. But as we've learned recently in the context of weapons of mass destruction, sometimes slam-dunks clang off the rim. Cochran did exactly what he always did, exactly what his job required him to do: fight like a hungry wolverine to get his client off, biting and scratching allowed. You can blame the prosecutors for not proving their case, or the police for letting themselves be trumped when Cochran played the race card, or the judge for losing any semblance of control. But don't blame Cochran. Defense attorneys work within ethical boundaries, but roadblocks, smokescreens and sleight of hand are tools our system expects them to use.

And in the case that will always define Cochran's career, it was literal sleight of hand. When O.J. made his less-than-vigorous failed attempt to pull on that blood-soaked leather glove, the delicate edifice of reasonable doubt that Cochran had built suddenly seemed to have a foundation.

After the verdict some critics attacked Cochran so bitterly for his tactics that he felt the need to explain himself in his memoirs. As recently as last September, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said that "after all this time" he still believes Simpson was innocent.

Johnnie, you had nothing to explain to anybody. You were a courtroom magician. And today, criminal defendants around the country -- the innocent and the guilty alike -- are looking for a new answer to the "Ghostbusters" question: Who you gonna call?

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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