Though their profession is not always known as a bastion of integrity, some lawyers may be counted among or favorably compared with some of the world’s great trailblazers of freedom. Consider Mohandas Gandhi. Clarence Darrow. Thurgood Marshall.
The guy who got O.J. Simpson acquitted for murder with a one-liner? Maybe not — but, in the tide of Juice nostalgia inspired by FX series “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” which premiered Tuesday night, Johnnie Cochran has emerged as a civil rights icon, a freedom fighter and an avenging angel.
“Johnnie Cochran, we see him in the same light as we do Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King because he struck a blow,” Courtney B. Vance, who played Cochran in the series, told NPR. “… Finally, on the biggest stage, a black man worked the system and got another black man off.”
Cochran died in 2005 — a decade before the upheavals that made police brutality and the unfair treatment of African American men by the justice system impossible to ignore. In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, Vance said, Cochran’s legacy is more important than ever.
“There’s a void when he passed away,” Vance said. “I mean, if Johnnie was here, he would be leading the charge in all of these cases. You know, all of the chokeholds and the Fergusons and all the — you know, all of them.”
The people of the Internet seemed to agree. Though defense lawyers’ names do not often trend on Twitter, there Cochran’s was in the wake of the “Simpson” premiere. Vance’s performance was praised. Cochran’s signature mustache was praised. Some wondered whether Bill Cosby’s attorneys will prove as successful as Cochran was in his many high-profile defenses — of Jim Brown, of Sean Combs, of Snoop Dogg, of Michael Jackson. And some assessments of the man behind “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” were as unflinching as ever.
“White america hates Johnny Cochran cause he did what lawyers are suppose to do,” one person wrote. “Win the case for the client.”
If such an appraisal of Cochran’s legacy seems legitimate today, it did not to many — that is, to many white people — in the wake of Simpson’s 1995 acquittal for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Cochran received hate mail and death threats. Lauded author Gay Talese called Cochran “a peerless exponent of racism as a weapon of defense.” After Cochran compared a Los Angeles police chief to Hitler, Goldman’s father called the lawyer “the worst kind of racist himself.” Even a member of Simpson’s defense team backed away from his colleague’s rhetoric.
“Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck,” Robert Shapiro said.
For Cochran, this was unfamiliar territory.
“The Simpson trial was the sea change of my life,” he wrote in a memoir. “It changed my life drastically and forever in ways impossible to even imagine. It obscured everything I had done previously. Everything.”
There was a lot to obscure. A lawyer who would become known for his flamboyance was led to the law by civil rights, not celebrities; the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision inspired him to get a law degree, and his early practice focused on police brutality, not paparazzi. He represented the widow of Leonard Deadwyler, a black motorist killed by police during a traffic stop in Los Angeles as he tried to get his pregnant wife to the hospital. He helped free Elmer Pratt, a Black Panther who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he said he did not commit — Cochran called the victory “the happiest day of my life practicing law.” Sure, he represented Simpson, but he also represented Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant tortured by the New York Police Department and, for a time, the mother of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant killed by the NYPD.
Though his less-famous victories may have seemed less tainted — by racial rhetoric, by tabloid notoriety, by Court TV — to some, Cochran said it was the Simpson trial that really mattered.
“Until the Simpson verdict, many people in the majority community believed that the legal system in this country functioned properly,” he wrote. “Guilty people were convicted and innocent people went free. Well, for members of that majority it did, but for the many African-Americans and other minorities, the justice system often had failed to provide justice. … The reality that the system failed to protect minorities was sort of our national secret, the dirt swept under the rug.”
In selling this argument to get Simpson off, Cochran pulled a magic trick of sorts: He used a sophisticated critique of American jurisprudence to bolster doubts about a glove.
“Johnnie Cochran turned out to be right,” famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a member of the Simpson defense team, said in 2005. “His magic worked. He even got Anise Aschenbach, the white woman juror, to vote for him. She later said she regretted her verdict, but she was charmed by Johnnie. And remember, she didn’t have to conclude that O.J. Simpson didn’t do it; all she had to conclude was that there was a reasonable doubt.”
Cochran’s logic also proved prescient, Dershowitz said, particularly when the LAPD’s Rampart scandal exploded a few years after Simpson was found not guilty.
“Cochran’s closing argument was, you have to teach a lesson to the police of Los Angeles,” he said. “And it’s interesting, because he was reviled for that, and I was, and many others were. And then the police scandal emerged in Los Angeles just a little while later. I got a number of public apologies on radio talk shows, from hosts and others saying: ‘You alerted us to this scandal before it happened. We could have stopped it. We wish we had listened to you.'”
For Cochran, it seemed, there was no difference between Simpson and civil rights — between the splashy “Trial of the Century” and the many smaller cases that led him to it.
As he memorably put it: “The clients I’ve cared about most are the ‘No-Js,’ the ones who nobody knows.”