Photo by Ted Soqui

In keeping with the timeworn Roman maxim “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” (“Of the dead speak nothing but good”), the obituaries of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who died on Tuesday of an inoperable brain tumor, read something like variations on the script issued by his family: The “world has lost not only a legendary attorney, but an outstanding humanitarian.” “He stood up for the common man,” said one obit. Another described him as “the black lawyer who had spent decades helping downtrodden members of his race.” “A crusader for the underdog,” still another reported. Cochran himself liked to quote Martin Luther King Jr. to define the ideal that was his lifelong courthouse motivation: “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And so the story goes, Cochran as dedicated civil rights attorney and defender of the defenseless.

It would have been better if the ancients had left us with a slightly different admonition, “De mortuis nil nisi verum,” or “Of the dead speak nothing but truth.” Johnnie Cochran was a good lawyer. He knew how to try cases, and win. And pocket tidy fees. But a champion of civil rights? Well, sometimes.

Cochran was, in fact, more a masterful opportunist than a principled advocate. After a stint in the City Attorney’s Office in the early ’60s, he made a name for himself getting money for clients who’d been wrongfully beaten by the LAPD’s notoriously brutal cops. There the Cochran legend arose: He wasn’t simply a savvy courtroom performer (which, in truth, he was) but also a civil rights advocate who’d bravely pioneered turf no other lawyer had the courage or insight to broach. That fiction helped Cochran buy his first Rolls-Royce, and helped obscure the truth that Hugh Manes, a white lawyer with the bark of a drill sergeant and a bulldog’s bite, had labored since the 1950s to establish a person’s right to sue the police and obtain compensation for his wounds.

It was the false murder conviction of Geronimo Pratt, however, that furnished Cochran with the mantle of righteousness he cloaked himself with in the years after he’d won an acquittal for O.J. Simpson. Simpson brought notoriety and wealth, but it wasn’t the kind of verdict that could earn you a place in the pantheon of civil rights. It was more on the order of trading one kind of injustice for another: The LAPD got away with beating Rodney King; freeing O.J. settled the score.

Pratt was different. At his 1972 trial, the ex–Black Panther had been framed by his accuser, Julius Butler, as part of an LAPD-FBI conspiracy to put Pratt behind bars. Back then, Cochran didn’t have the evidence to expose Butler. Twenty-six years later, however, he did, and in an Orange County courtroom, he got a second chance to attack Butler’s credibility. This time Butler’s lies collapsed under Cochran’s skillful filleting, and the judge freed Pratt. Here was a genuine civil rights victory.

Yet Cochran was never content with these facts alone. He felt compelled to place himself in the entire 27-year storyline of Pratt’s trial, conviction, incarceration, and appeals up and down state and federal courts, as if he’d been a rock of faithfulness throughout Pratt’s ordeal. In truth, beginning with the original trial, Cochran’s role had been somewhat less abiding and heroic than he claimed. Pratt’s chief counsel had been Charles Hollopeter, a seasoned defense attorney, who put on such a capable defense that the jury was hung throughout 10 days of deliberations before it finally reached its verdict. Hollopeter had been on the case for a year and a half before Cochran joined the defense — only after Hollopeter asked the judge to appoint a black lawyer to corral Panther alibi witnesses who were refusing to cooperate with the white lawyer. Sadly, after Hollopeter and Cochran thoroughly undermined the prosecution’s witnesses, Cochran blundered by introducing a key piece of evidence that allowed the prosecution to claim the defense alibi was a lie. The verdict turned on this one piece of evidence, and Pratt went to prison.

By 1981, Cochran was working for District Attorney John Van de Kamp. At the time, Pratt’s attorneys thought Cochran might be enlisted to get Van de Kamp’s ear, to get a fresh hearing in his case. Cochran declined, saying it’d be a conflict of interest. Only when the case heated up, and seemed to attract media attention, in 1982 and then again, in 1996-97, did Cochran resurface. In the long, fruitless stretches, Cochran sat it out while Pratt’s other lawyers continued to sift documents, scrounge witnesses and complain bitterly about Cochran’s pusillanimity.

When, finally, Pratt was freed, he won a $4.5 million wrongful-imprisonment judgment. Pratt kept $2.5 million, and left the rest to his lawyers to divide. More than a generation had passed since his conviction, and better than a dozen lawyers had worked on his behalf. None had taken any fees; most had sacrificed their careers and income to see justice done. Yet, when it came time to divide the spoils, Cochran, who’d been lawyer in absentia most of the time, and hardly needed the fee, grabbed roughly 45 percent, some $850,000, for himself. Lawyers who’d put in thousands of hours got less than $10,000, some as little as $2,500.

At the beginning of his career, as a young prosecutor, Cochran had pursued Lenny Bruce on obscenity charges, the First Amendment be damned. He later admitted he’d done wrong. Yet, at the end, he was doing much the same thing. As he lay dying, he left pending a case before the United States Supreme Court in which he was trying desperately to shut up one of his detractors. Ulysses Tory, a former client, had defamed Cochran, calling him names, implying he was a cheat. Cochran got a Los Angeles judge to permanently bar Tory from saying anything, anytime, anywhere, about O.J.’s ex-counsel, and he was hoping, before he died, that the Supreme Court would forever muzzle Tory.

In the end, it might have been better had Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. not been so fond of that quotation from Martin Luther King. He set himself a standard he wasn’t willing to live by.

LA Weekly