Between the deaths of Terri Schiavo and the Pope, Johnny Cochran's death seems to have been lost in the chaos. But, on the evening of his death, I did catch a segment on MSNBC's The Abrams Report where Dan Abrams asked a guest if Cochran regretted getting OJ acquitted
. I don't remember the guest or the response because my own response came flowing out. Why should he have regretted doing his job - a job he was paid very well to do? The best case could not have been shattered had it been air tight. I was also sick of hearing about him using the alleged race card when it is and has always been a documented fact that the LAPD has racist and corrupt practices.
Heck, had I been on the jury and had doubts about police carelessness, tampering and racism I would have let OJ off too. There has to come a time when white police officers stop acting like Southern cops of yesteryear and begin to act as the color blind protectors and servants like they are supposed to be. Ironically, Johnny Cochran had been defending men with far lower profiles and financial means than OJ for years and, sadly, the cases weren't dissimilar. He basically had the defense down pat because it was the same old story ... different negro. The OJ case may have made him a household name but some of his best work had been done in the years prior.
In 1966, 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.
"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 murderer skip away free.
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."
On the one hand, I'm sorry that he is so defined by a case that, once again, highlighted the vast racial divide in this country. It was no big coincidence that most blacks thought OJ was innocent while most whites thought he was guilty - before the trial even began. His acquittal still has regular citizens and cable TV pundits frothing at the mouth and it's been a decade. Ironically, Robert Blake was recently acquitted of murdering his wife too. I think I'm more convinced of his guilt than I was of OJ's. Yet, where is the outrage, venom and certainty that a killer is back on the loose? Was his plump, unattractive wife's life less valuable than the younger, prettier Nicole's? Not only do I think it was less valuable in many people's eyes, I believe that the outrage over Nicole was because a black man stood accused? That's the same old pathological fixation that people have had with black men and white women since the very first slave ship was docked. I'm not sure that will ever change and as long as it doesn't, we will need many a Johnny Cochran to save the day.
Oddly, during the coverage of Johnny Cochran, many law professors mentioned that many of their students - of all races - sited Cochran as the reason why they decided to study law. Though he was hated and villified by many for effectively defending his client, people recognized the sheer brilliance of his efforts and, no doubt, would call him in a New York minute if they ever found themselves in need of legal services. I didn't watch much of the trial back then because once I saw him mock the theory of OJ using a disguise by putting on that black wool hat and asking "Who am I," I knew that the games had begun and there was a good chance that Johnny Cochran would be victorious. So, rest in peace Brother Cochran. I personally will never be sure if OJ did it. But, I will remember the man who gave me reasonable doubt.