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The Defense Rests – Not in Peace 

The legacy of Johnnie Cochran as a rich, famous, undeniably effective and occasionally self-serving black professional will live on

Thursday, Apr 7 2005
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Johnnie Cochran was not a saint. That hardly needs to be said about trial lawyers, particularly those as savvy and smooth-talking as Cochran; he practically defined the urbane intellect and glossy ambitions that made L.A. Law such a zeitgeist show of the ’80s and set a nonfiction standard for the profession that persists 20 years after. True to Hollywood form, Cochran loved nice clothes, cars, a high profile and media attention, which distinguished him not very much from scores of other criminal-defense and entertainment lawyers looking to make and maintain names for themselves with celebrity clients or causes, preferably both. The difference, of course, was that Cochran was black, and as such was frequently held to moral standards and notions of racial propriety and authenticity that existed for no one else. His longtime advocacy of grassroots issues like police abuse in poor communities seemed somehow at odds with his fancy threads and genteel air — how could he be like that and credibly represent “the people?” In the eyes of many, particularly after the O.J. trial, his Rolls-Royce evidenced not success or competence, but the fact he was shallow or working some kind of hustle. In successfully defending Simpson, Cochran himself was charged with single-handedly inventing the “race card,” a bizarre accusation that went way beyond the case itself to the racial animus that underlies white America’s smiley-faced insistence that everybody’s entitled to their share of the pie and that money is the great social equalizer. In fact, Cochran was a good example of how America can work the way it likes to imagine: After the legal death of segregation in the 1960s, he was a member of that first generation of black people who were relatively free to prosper and begin carving out a middle class like no other before it. This was a generation that realized it no longer had to take back entrances or apologize or affect humility just to survive and keep up appearances of a social order; Cochran dared to see himself as a star, and that’s what he became. Of course, he was a star in black circles well before O.J., when he represented nameless people he later called the “no-J’s,” including the widow of L.A. motorist Leonard Deadwyler, a victim of an egregious police shooting in the mid-’60s, and Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, who became famous as a symbol of what lengths the justice system will go to convict a black man, even in the face of more than reasonable doubt that he is innocent. Cochran was a hero to black people for two reasons: He strove hard and made good, and he made it his business — literally — to help his own. In addition to representing the afflicted, he also gave money and support to various scholarship funds and schools to benefit black people. He might have gotten too sanctimonious at times, too fond of quoting Martin Luther King’s observation that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” as his chief reason for being in the game. Maybe it wasn’t, but the proof was in the cases he tried and the people he went after — not only the LAPD or NYPD (in the Abner Louima police brutality case) but also big companies like Coca-Cola and Lockheed Martin, which he accused of racial discrimination. Sure, he got people big settlements, but often these were people who couldn’t get the cops or corporations to admit they’d done anything wrong, let alone get money out of them. And despite a reputation for courtroom showboating, Cochran did it all with a persona that was entirely against type for a black public figure — calm, incisive, reflective and, in spite of the flamboyant duds, slightly nerdy. He wasn’t fiery or dramatic or overtly religious. He was the rare black celebrity who was not an athlete or entertainer but a professional man who’d played by the rules and made it on his own moxie and pursuit of higher education. Black people may not have quite liked the fact that his celebrity defendants later included Snoop Dogg and Tupac, but we also knew how fundamentally important good counsel is for black men accused of crimes, whatever their stature — Cochran was just doing his job, as he did with O.J. And we took some satisfaction in seeing black men retaining the services of other black men; the fast-money, upper-middle-class generation that followed Cochran was so ingrained with the belief that success meant being surrounded with white folks, it was good to see it go the other way sometimes. As I said at the beginning, Cochran was not a saint. He had an extramarital relationship, with kids. He pocketed more money in lawyer fees than he was probably entitled to. Yet that hubris doesn’t eclipse his concern for achieving some measure of social justice, or his very real role in forcing the criminal justice system to see the hypocrisy in sanctioning criminal behavior by the law enforcement in its own ranks. As it was with pioneering journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Cochran’s personal fire may have burned brightest early in his career, but that doesn’t mean it died out completely or that what he did later meant nothing. I’m not sure how people will ultimately judge Cochran, especially those still smarting from the O.J. case, or if they will bother to judge him at all. Not long ago, I caught an A&E Biography of Cochran that was uncharacteristically restrained and muddy; it withheld the usual accolades or favorable spin A&E biographies always grant their subjects at the end of the hour, if nowhere else. This one felt obligatory, uncomfortable with itself, unsure of what to say about a notable black man who nonetheless wasn’t a lion like Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King — can we say that he mattered? Considering that the A&E channel rhapsodizes about any number of minor celebrities on any given day, I’d say he’s a no-brainer. And definitely not a no-J.

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