Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., 1937-2005

I was saddened by Johnnie Cochran's death. I learned about it from a student this morning, who tried to make a witticism about "the glove." Mainstream America has a picture of Johnnie Cochran as the somewhat slick "trial lawyer defined by the O.J. Simpson case," to quote the New York Times obit. My local paper's obituary shows Cochran holding up the bloody glove in the O.J. Simpson trial and quoting his famous argument to the jury "if it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

My picture of Johnnie Cochran is somewhat different. While I can't say I knew Johnnie Cochran personally, I had the privilege of working with him on the case of Geronimo Pratt, a former Black Panther who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1972 in a trial in which the prosecution illegally withheld critical evidence. 26 years later, Pratt was released from prison due to the work of a team of attorneys spanning more than two decades.

I met Johnnie Cochran a few times in connection with the case, always in a group. He was a physically imposing man with great charm and charisma, who had a politician's flair for really working a room. But to the extent I can claim to be acquainted with him, it wasn't really through any personal interaction.

I joined the Pratt case at the very end, writing the final appeal brief defending the lower court decision to release Pratt. In doing so, I had to review many volumes of transcripts from the 1972 jury trial, in which Pratt was defended by a 35-year-old Johnnie Cochran. As any appellate lawyer will tell you, you develop an odd kind of intimacy with the trial counsel as he appears on the transcript pages. I feel like I spent many hours alone, not with Johnnie, but with "MR. COCHRAN," getting a feel for his speech mannerisms and even, I like to imagine, getting inside his head.

Cochran was convinced that Pratt's conviction was an injustice and vowed to stay with the case until the verdict was overturned. There was no money or glory to be made by making that vow. Cochran kept that promise. Not many lawyers can claim that kind of fidelity to a client. As the NY Times reports, and as I had heard from other sources, Cochran always said that the Pratt case meant the most to him of all his cases.

Johnnie Cochran's reputation can't escape the influence of our society's ambivalence toward successful trial lawyers and sucesssful black men, and his role in the O.J. Simpson case is "defining" in large part because it fits that ambivalent social myth so well. But long before the O.J. Simpson trial, his national profile and the more gaudy success of his later career, Cochran established a reputation as a leading civil rights lawyer. Yes, he was a showman, yes he was something of a self-promoter -- though what highly successful self-made man or woman isn't something of a self-promoter? But side by side with these traits was the integrity of a man who acted on deeply held convictions. Johnnie Cochran was for years perhaps the first lawyer you would want to call if your son had been beaten up by the police. Whatever one thinks of O.J. Simpson, Cochran's defense strategy was not some smoke and mirrors gimmick, but the product of a career of standing up for the rights of victims (typically though not always racial minorities) of the excesses of the notoriously overreaching LA Police Department.

To me, Johnnie Cochran is a shining example of a lawyer doing well by doing good. It's nice that virtue does not always have to be entirely its own reward. I have little use for the moralism which holds that a do-gooder must either be a saint who takes a vow of poverty or else can be reduced to the punch line of a cynical joke. Johnnie Cochran had a sincere, heartfelt and justified skepticism toward law enforcement, a recognition that law enforcement agencies can and often do abuse their power. A free society needs its Johnnie Cochrans.


I agree with you completely. Everyone deserves a defense, and a good one at that. (Isnt' that in our constitution somewhere?). Good for him. I was fortunate enough to sit next to him on train, believe it or not. He encouraged me in my career. I will never forget that. Great tribute. Thanks.
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