Johnnie Cochran: A lawyer and a gentleman

Attorney Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. died 10 years ago. A brain tumor took him out at the age of 67. The mainstream media remembered him as O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, who had gotten an improbable acquittal for his notorious client in the spectacular double-murder trial in Los Angeles in 1995.

On the 10th anniversary of Cochran’s passing, young lawyers can learn much from a short look at his career in practice. That career far exceeded the stunning “not guilty” verdict for which Cochran is today mostly remembered.

I met Cochran once, at a trial practice symposium in Napa. The names of trial bar giants studded the roster of presenters: John Keker, Morgan Chu, Jim Brosnahan. Another notable name was on the roster: Johnnie’s. He was to present a segment on voir dire, on Saturday morning.

It was April 1995. By this time, the “Trial of the Century” was in full swing. Daily gavel-to-gavel broadcasts of the trial dominated the TV ratings. A “dream team” of defense lawyers was defending the celebrity defendant, O.J. Simpson. Cochran, an experienced and charming defense lawyer who wore beautiful hand-painted neckties, was their leader.

I boarded the plane from Lindbergh Field for the trip to Napa on a Friday. During the flight, I thought of the seminars I’d attended where a famous presenter had cancelled his appearance shortly beforehand, because of a trial. “Johnnie’s doing the ‘Trial of the Century’ right now,” I thought. “Too bad I won’t get to see him this weekend.”

I checked in that night. At the registration desk, someone handed me a fat notebook of materials. I asked her who Johnnie’s replacement was for the weekend. She looked at me quizzically. “Mr. Cochran is here,” she said.

The program started the next morning. The fact pattern involved personal injuries, engineering issues, a discovery dispute over document retention policies, and so forth.

In the first segment, Cochran would do voir dire and pick a jury. “He’ll be winging it,” I thought. “No way he’s had the time to do the homework.” Wrong again. Cochran stood up and began voir dire of a group of mock jurors.

His questions demonstrated an easy mastery of the fact pattern, which he had obviously studied. He was witty, charming, thorough, probing. He subtly argued his case a little without seeming overt about it. It was a textbook, workmanlike voir dire. Cochran made it seem effortless. He sat down within his allotted time.

The program went on. There was a big dinner that night, then a modest breakfast Sunday morning. By this time, I thought Cochran surely would have been back in Los Angeles, preparing for Monday morning’s proceedings in the Simpson trial. Again I was wrong. Cochran was at the breakfast.

On this morning, most wore casual clothes. Cochran was dressed to the nines, in a dark suit and colorful tie. People lined up to shake his hand or take a photograph. He didn’t leave until the very last person who wanted to had shaken his hand or taken a photo with him.

Today, with civility in the civil trial bar long gone and mentoring only a rarity, young lawyers have too few role models. Cochran should be one of them.

In the 1960s and ’70s he invested much time and money in police brutality cases — a type of case practically unheard of in the courts during that time. He lost several of those cases, but he kept going.

In 1981 he brought to light the disgraceful episode of the killing of Ron Settles, a Cal State Long Beach football player, in Signal Hill police custody. The front-page coverage of the Settles case in the Los Angeles Times brought home to many white people for the first time what black people in Southern California had known for decades: White police officers often abused and brutalized African-American citizens, then lied about it afterward and escaped the consequences.

Geronimo Pratt’s case is almost never talked about today. A mention of it to young lawyers draws a blank look, as if to say, “Another old-guy story coming up.” Pratt, a former Black Panther Party leader, spent 27 years in prison before a court overturned his wrongful conviction for murder.

Cochran represented Pratt without compensation, while advancing costs out of his pocket, for more than two decades. When Pratt finally walked free in 1997, it eclipsed the Simpson acquittal in every way except sensational media coverage — i.e., in every way that really mattered.

Cochran’s ultimate stardom even inspired a character on “Seinfeld” – Jackie Chiles, an unctuous, theatrical trial lawyer, who despairs when his client, Kramer, foolishly settles his lawsuit with a coffee company on financial terms disadvantageous to Jackie. When television show writers invent a comic character based on you, then, maybe, you have truly arrived as a lawyer who has succeeded on the public stage.

Johnnie Cochran was that rarity in today’s trial bar: a scholar, a lawyer’s lawyer, and someone who personally sacrificed time and money to help people regarded as nobodies – the “no J’s,” as he called them. He was also a nice man.

There are lawyers I know who blow off lunch appointments with other lawyers because they have a brief to finish that afternoon. But in the midst of the biggest trial of his career, Johnnie Cochran remembered he had promised months ago to present a one-hour segment about voir dire to a bunch of lawyers he’d never met and that a promise is a promise.

Lawton is the principal of Lawton Law Firm in downtown San Diego.

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Zeb Fry 12:00am June 9, 2015

I wish to be a defense attorney and so does my friend, so I personally believe the things Johnnie Cochran accomplished are amazing. The O.J Simpson case was a very impressive achievement, and so was the Geronimo Pratt case. It is a shame he died of the brain tumor, because I would have liked to meet him.