By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, BlackNews.com Columnist
The defining moment for me in the O.J. Simpson trial was not Simpson’s acquittal and the firestorm that it ignited nationally. It was a note I got from an associate in Johnnie Cochran’s law firm. He said that Johnnie wanted me to know that he admired my comments in the case. I was one of the legion of talking head analysts during the trial, and like many of the other analysts, I was skeptical, even critical, of some of Cochran’s legal maneuvers.
I thought he badly overplayed the race card in the case, and deliberately played to the anti-police sentiments of some of the black jurors. But Cochran still went out of his way to pay me the compliment. I then paid even closer attention to Cochran’s arguments and presentation in the trial. By the end of the trial Cochran convinced me that there was more than enough reasonable doubt to acquit Simpson. Most legal experts that worked with him and battled against him in major criminal and civil cases in the more than four decades of his legal career, agreed that Cochran was more than a flamboyant, race conscious, courtroom showman. He was a consummate legal professional that sought to use his prodigious legal talent to defend the rights of the poor and the dispossessed.
Cochran set a lofty standard for advocacy law that influenced a generation of criminal and public advocacy attorneys. He was deeply influenced by the monumental legal battles that civil rights legend Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall fought against segregation and police violence. Cochran publicly credited them for inspiring him to champion civil rights causes in the courtroom Cochran stamped his biggest imprint on the volatile issue of police abuse. In 1965, Cochran defended Leonard Deadwyler, an unarmed black motorist shot by an LAPD officer while he was taking his pregnant wife to the hospital.
The LAPD had long been recognized by many as America’s poster police department for brutal treatment of blacks. Deadwyler was the latest in the legion of blacks that had been shot by the police under dubious circumstances. During the coroner’s inquest into the Deadwyler killing that was televised, Cochran riveted public attention on the LAPD’s policies and practices. The officer was exonerated, but Cochran’s skill at fingering police abuse heightened public awareness of racism, police violence, and the need for major reforms in police practices.
Over the years, Cochran’s fame and reputation grew, and he got richer in the process. Yet, he still continued to battle police abuse. He waged a quarter century fight to free Black Panther Elmer Geronimo Pratt who was falsely convicted of the murder of a white woman in 1972. Cochran exposed how the government used paid agents to frame black militants and disrupt black organizations.
Pratt was released in 1997. Cochran repeatedly said the Pratt case and victory was the defining moment of his career. But the case was an extension of his relentless fight for justice in the courts.
The Simpson case was yet another example to Cochran of how a black defendant, even a rich black celebrity defendant such as Simpson, could be victimized by the criminal justice. The issues again were racism, and police misconduct. Cochran did not as I mistakenly believed play on race to manipulate the jurors and get Simpson off. He meticulously picked apart the flaws, contradictions and inconsistencies in the prosecutions case. The case was won on the evidence or lack thereof, and not race, and Cochran paid a steep price for his skill.
Much of the public enraged at the verdict, blamed him for letting a murder skip away free. Cochran would spend the next decade in the case, in speeches, two autobiographies, and several articles explaining his action in the case.
In those years I would occasionally see Cochran at different functions, and each time he did not duck the thorny issues in the Pratt, Simpson and the other police abuse cases that he was involved in during his career. The audiences always sat in rapt attention, and when he finished they would leap to their feet in sustained applause to show their deep appreciation and admiration for his work.
In his final years, Cochran railed at the Bush administration for trampling on civil rights in the war on terrorism. In one of his last major speeches at the mostly white, upper crust Commonwealth Club in Los Angeles in 2002, Cochran blasted then Attorney general John Ashcroft for eroding civil rights and warned, "They’re not going to say later, hey, you know, we’re just taking those for a little while until we work this little problem out." Cochran understood that civil rights were not a "little problem" but were precious commodities that had to be safeguarded at all costs, and that the Bush administration imperiled those rights. That’s why Johnnie Cochran should be remembered for much more than O.J.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is columnist for BlackNews.com, a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).