I was one of those who always thought O.J. did it. Still do, matter of fact. But whether or not O.J. Simpson really did murder his wife and Ron Goldman, I have to say that during the trial I developed a huge amount of respect for Johnnie Cochran, who died last week at the age of 67. Say what you want about him playing the so-called “race card” or any other card in his defense of Simpson, the brother was good. As a matter of fact, Cochran had a reputation in the black community stretching back more than 30 years of being so good that he was the criminal lawyer to call if you got really jammed up by “the system,” usually meaning the cops.
White people had Superman, we had Johnnie Cochran. Typical black folks couldn’t care less if you’re faster than a speeding bullet and can leap tall buildings in a single bound, they want to know what can you do about the hell they’re enduring down here on the ground. Time after time, and court case after court case, Johnnie kept coming through, sticking it to The Man every chance he got.
Although nearly everyone knows about his work on the Simpson case, fewer know how successful he was throughout the years, particularly with police brutality cases. Cochran was instrumental in bringing about changes in police procedure; a lawsuit filed by Cochran forced the LAPD to ban the too-often-lethal carotid chokehold in 1982. Furthermore, Cochran’s office, which has a staff of 11 attorneys, has won a string of precedent-setting victories in California, winning more than $40 million in jury awards and settlements — all from police brutality cases. Midway through the Simpson trial his office won yet another verdict against the LAPD on behalf of a black man who was suffocated to death after being surrounded by 20 of L.A.’s finest, shot with a Taser gun and then hog-tied.
Cochran defended a number of high-profile and highly controversial clients, most of whom walked away with acquittals. Aside from O.J. Simpson, Cochran’s defense of Black Panthers leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt is probably his biggest victory, even though it took 25 years for Pratt’s conviction to be overturned in 1997. Pratt was convicted of murdering a schoolteacher and sentenced to 25 years to life. Cochran also successfully defended football star Jim Brown on charges of rape (acquitted), Diff’rent Strokes TV star Todd Bridges on assault with a deadly weapon (acquitted), rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg on being an accessory to murder (acquitted), and rap mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs on gun possession and bribery (acquitted). Cochran also won $8.75 million from the New York Police Department for Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, who in 1997 accused several police officers of brutally beating and sodomizing him following his arrest outside a Manhattan nightclub.
White people had Superman, we had Johnnie Cochran.
What I suspect angered many whites about the Simpson verdict, aside from their certainty of O.J.’s guilt, was the flamboyantly brilliant way in which Cochran, another black man, worked the system and spanked the prosecution. It was bad enough seeing a black man get off after murdering a white woman, but to see this courtesy of another black man who could manipulate the white justice system better than most whites was more than they could take.
And Cochran definitely dominated the case. Though Simpson’s Dream Team consisted of such courtroom heavyweights as Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey, the name that remains most closely associated with the so-called “Trial of the Century,” after O.J. himself, is Cochran. Did anybody else in the Dream Team get a TV show following the trial? Nope. Just Johnnie. Does anyone remember much of anything the other three defense lawyers uttered in court? Probably not. But just about everyone remembers, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
But no one can forget how this trial demonstrated the racial divide in America. Although I always had a gut feeling O.J. was guilty, most black folks were cheering as if he were on his way to one last touchdown. Most whites, on the other hand, were rabidly anti-O.J., and just as rabidly anti-Cochran. Whites couldn’t believe black people would support a murderer just because he was black. To them, this wasn’t racial solidarity, this was insanity.
As for blacks, many of us never thought we’d live to see the day when a black man walked out of court a free man after being accused of killing a white woman. The fact that it took the resources of four of the nation’s most prominent attorneys to earn an acquittal for a wealthy, famous, formerly beloved athlete didn’t seem to register or matter. Black people took the verdict personally. O.J.’s victory was black people finally getting their day in court. For some who didn’t necessarily believe O.J. was innocent, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see white folks get a taste of “white man’s justice.” The fact that this white man’s justice was delivered by Johnnie Cochran, a black man, made it all the sweeter.
This is what Cochran said in his closing arguments in the O.J. Simpson case: “One of my favorite people in history is the great Frederick Douglass. He said shortly after the slaves were freed, quote, ‘In a composite nation like ours as before the law, there should be no rich, no poor, no high, no low, no white, no black, but common country, common citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny.’ This marvelous statement was made more than 100 years ago. It’s an ideal worth striving for and one that we still strive for. We haven’t reached this goal yet, but certainly in this great country of ours, we’re trying. With a jury such as this, we hope we can do that in this particular case.”
I could almost hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing in the background as I read it. It’s obvious that Cochran was painting a pretty picture before setting fire to it with a blowtorch. The O.J. Simpson case was as much about the rich, the high, the white and the black, as it was about the crime at hand. Matter of fact, there were times when Cochran’s brilliant legal strategy of drawing the spotlight onto American racism and the extent to which it has corrupted the American judicial system (how can a black man get a fair trial in America?) nearly made you forget that this was a murder case.
But the O.J. Simpson case was about as representative of the average black man’s struggle against the system as a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow is representative of the average American family car, and Cochran knew it. However, being the sharp lawyer he was, Cochran knew he had to downplay the anything-but-average life of O.J. Simpson and bring him back down to earth where the rest of the brothers live. And so the rich and famous, formerly beloved star athlete O.J. was suddenly just another brotherman fighting against The Man.
No matter how much some may have resented Cochran using race during the trial, all he did was what any good lawyer would do; he used every tool at his disposal to fight for his client. And like Connie Rice (cousin of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) commented recently on NPR, Johnnie Cochran didn’t play the race card, he had the race card dealt to him from the very beginning. He just knew how to make the best of his hand.
Like I said, the brother was good. White folks had Superman, we had Johnnie Cochran.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]