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Johnnie Cochran: The man behind the mask

Posted By Stuart Goldman On 10/23/1998 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

    “Comedian onstage: “By the way, are there any niggers out there tonight?”

    Outraged whisper: “What did he say? Are there any niggers out here tonight? Jesus Christ! Is that cruel, or what?!”

    Comedian: “I know there’s one nigger who works here. I see him back there. Oh, there’s two niggers, and — between those two niggers — one kike. Uh, two kikes. That’s two kikes, three niggers, and one spic. One spic — two … three spics. One mick, one spick, one hick. Three kikes, one guinea, two micks, one greaseball, and two yid spic polack hunky funky boogies. …

    “The point? That the word’s suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If the president got on the news tonight and said, ‘Tonight I’d like to introduce all the niggers in my cabinet,’ and he yelled ‘niggerniggerniggerniggerniggernigger’ at every nigger he saw, till nigger didn’t mean anything any more — ’til nigger lost its meaning — you’d never make any four year old black kid cry when he came home from school.”

    –Lenny Bruce

Everybody calls him Johnnie. No first name, last name. Not Mr. Cochran. Just … Johnnie. That’s because Johnnie L. Cochran is a special kind of guy. Ask anybody. Heck, ask me.

I ran into the esteemed Mr. C at the airport a few days ago. There he was, attired in one of those hideous green-ish yellow sharkskin suits, strutting along. He was alone, but he still had that Big ol’ Heeeeere’s Johnnie! smile plastered on his face. You all remember that smile — we saw it every time Cochran addressed the camera during the O.J. Simpson trial.

We haven’t seen much of the estimable Mr. Cochran since his days as a mega-media star. He had his own TV show for awhile, but it sank into the sunset. A book came out, “Journey To Justice” (hooboy!), ghost written by none other than Tim Rutton, one of the L.A. Times resident liberal shills, and husband of the second most despicable defense lawyer in the biz — Leslie Abramson.

Anyhow, seeing Cochran — with that goofy smile-at-nobody-in-particular … strutting (and I mean this cat can strut , baby!) through baggage claim … dapper … confident … looking (as he always does in public) like he owns the room — up-close-and-personal like that, brought back a rush of memories from the Simpson trial days. It’s true, I had an assignment to cover the case, but like everyone else, I’d become an addict.

One thing I recall about the trial was that everybody called Cochran by his first name. You never heard Judge Ito (what ever happened to little Lance?) call prosecutor Marcia Clark “Marcia,” or Christopher Darden “Chris.” But Johnnie Cochran is a different story.

From the moment you set eyes on the man, you feel like you’ve known him your whole life. Sometimes he seems fatherly; at others he’s more like your best buddy … a guy you could sit down and tell your troubles to. Everything about Cochran says: “Trust me.” Even the spelling of his first name, with it’s user-friendly “ie” ending instead of the traditional “y.”

When people talk about Cochran it’s almost always in glowing terms. Accolades abound. We hear that in addition to his superstar client roster (Simpson; Michael Jackson; actor Todd Bridges; former football star Jim Brown), he’ll still take cases from “regular folks.” (What a guy!) Almost to a man, Cochran’s peers describe him as “a great trial lawyer.” Terms like “brilliant” and “genius” are frequently bandied about.

I could never help but find the constant praise somewhat odd. During those countless day and nights of Simpson trial watching, I saw lots of things from Cochran: a savvy courtroom manner, an ability to put people at ease, a way of manipulating his audience without ever seeming devious. But given the (perhaps old-fashioned) notion that a good lawyer is not simply someone who knows how to look good on television, but rather, someone capable of delivering impressive expositional argument — I never once saw anything from Cochran remotely resembling great lawyering.

But you see, Cochran knows it’s not about content — it’s about style. And the cat’s got the gig down flat. His voice is mellifluous, almost saxophone like. He woos, he wheedles, he charms, he cajoles. Most importantly, he never loses his cool. When confronted with an uncomfortable question, Cochran responds by rolling his eyes and chuckling deep in his throat, as if to invite you to share in his quandary. Without even knowing how it’s happened, you’re on his side.

Johnnie Cochran wears a mask. The mask is his face. Somewhere — behind the moustache and the oversized, yellow-tinted glasses, behind the twinkling eyes and toothy grins — is the real face. But the real face has long been hidden. The mask is firmly in place, built up over years of practice. Its only giveaway is an occasional vacancy in the eyes, glimpsed in an unguarded moment.

Virtually everybody agrees about Cochran’s effect on a jury. “When Johnnie talks to the jury, it’s like a lightbulb turning on between him and them,” says an associate. Another comment is more on the money. “If Johnnie tells jurors that a turkey can pull a freight train, they’ll look for a rope.”

I don’t know about you, but to me, that spells huckster — someone who can convince people despite the facts. In fact, the word most often used to describe Cochran is smooth. I’d opt for oily. Cochran is the Don King of the legal world.

After listening to Cochran for any protracted length of time, I always have the overwhelming urge to take a shower (seriously). You’d think that folks might be put off by the incessant grandstanding, the specious arguments, the never-ending hyperbole, the constant posing and preening. What’s most aggravating, though, is not so much Cochran’s shuck ‘n’ jive act itself — after all, this is what attorneys do — but that nobody seems willing to point it out. With the exception of former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (who called Cochran’s cross-examination techniques “barely competent”) even his enemies rarely have an unkind world to say about ol’ Johnnie. And you know what? That makes me suspicious. That makes me thing that this guy must have some serious juice.

Cochran has a rep for being well-connected. A power player. His friendship with recently deceased mayor Tom Bradley has been well-documented, as has a long-standing friendship with District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who once worked under Cochran in the DA’s office. According to the L.A. Times, Cochran’s friendship extended to getting Garcetti votes when he defeated incumbent Dist. Atty Ira Reiner in 1992. At that time, Cochran asked Reverend William Epps, pastor of the Second Baptist Church (where Cochran has been a member for 47 years) to introduce Garcetti before his congregation. “With the Afro-American middle-class,” Epps said, “Johnnie’s political endorsement can be invaluable.”

Larry Feldman, the former president of the Los Angeles Country Bar Association, and the attorney who represented the 13-year-old boy who had accused Michael Jackson of child molestation, indicated that Cochran’s connections with Garcetti (Cochran represented Jackson in the case) was a major factor in the DA’s refusal to bring criminal charges against the pop star. Garcetti denies the allegation, although he admits, “I don’t deny that Johnnie has … access.”

But dig a just little, and you’ll find that Cochran’s past is not without blemishes. According to the Times, in the early ’80s, when Cochran served as a Tom Bradley appointee on the Los Angeles Airport Commission, a number of Bradley’s friends and fund-raisers were awarded choice airport concessions with little or no cash investment required. In 1986, Rep. Julian C. Dixon, D-LA, hired Cochran to do $170,000 in legal work. Two months later, Cochran — then the Airport Commission chairman — voted to award a concession to run seven duty free stores to a company partly owned by Dixon’s wife. A scandal ensued and an investigation was instigated. The file was closed when the statute of limitations ran out.

Another instance involved Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther who had been sentenced to life in prison for murdering a schoolteacher. Cochran, who was working for the DA’s office when Pratt came up for parole, had defended Pratt in the original case. Prior to the hearing, Cochran sent a mailgram to the parole board recommending Pratt for parole. An angry District Attorney John Van de Kamp quickly wrote the board, stating that his office had not authorized Cochran to write such a letter. Said Girard Courteau, a deputy district attorney for Marin County, who represented the state against Pratt at the parole hearing, “It was a very stupid thing (of Cochran) to do.”

More interesting were the revelations in a Los Angeles Times Magazine article, which, in the midst of the Simpson-madness, reported that Cochran’s first wife, Barbara had sought a restraining order against him for beating her. In her 1977 divorce petition, the former Ms. Cochran stated that, “During the course of our marriage (Cochran has) without any reasonable cause … physically struck, beat and inflicted severe injury upon the person of the Petitioner. …”

Cochran told the Times that it was all a mistake, that the statements were made “for legal reasons. She knows they are not true and will be happy to talk to you about it.” But when the reporter went to see her, Cochran’s former wife refused to recant, saying that she would not discuss the matter.

The following day, Barbara Cochran appeared on the Geraldo Rivera show. Accompanying her was a teary-eyed woman who identified herself as Patricia Cochran. On the show, Patrician Cochran was identified as having been Johnnie Cochran’s mistress for the past 18 years. She is the mother of his son, Jonathan, born in 1973. Cochran still supported both mother and son, to the tune of $4,000 a month.

Frequently stopping to break into tears, Patricia Cochran told the viewers that just prior to her appearance on the show, Cochran had threatened to cut her off financially if she went public. When asked if Cochran had ever been violent, Patricia recounted an incident where Cochran had shown up at her home with cuts and scratches following an altercation with his then-wife. “He said something about a knife,” recalled Patricia, “and that he’d had a fight with Barbara over a candy bar called a Peanut Patty.” (At this point there were audible snickers from the audience.) For the remainder of the show, a bleary-eyed Patricia painted a picture of Cochran as a vicious, mean-spirited womanizer who would do and say anything to get whatever he wanted. Her testimonial was interrupted by frequent breakdowns, during which the ever-sympathetic Rivera bowed his head and patted Patricia on the shoulder.

The most interesting thing about the appearance of Patricia Cochran was not so much what she had to say, but what the past 18 years had done to her face. In photos and home movies interspersed throughout her interview, we saw a thin, attractive blonde with a pleasant, if somewhat characterless countenance. That face — now beset by crows feet, elephantine eye-bags, double chins, and a wattle of sagging skin around the neck — was wrecked.

Cochran has forged a reputation as a man who will spare no expense in combating “racist prosecution.” To that end, Cochran has spent most of his career doing exactly what he succeeded in doing in the Simpson case — beating up on the police department. The most effective method of doing this, Cochran knows, is to play what the TV commentators seem to love calling “the race card.”

The importance of the racial turf on which the Simpson criminal case was fought (and won), was made clear for all to see during the first week of the trial when Cochran and Darden clashed over the use of the dreaded “N” word (see Lenny Bruce intro) which had allegedly been employed by detective Mark Fuhrman some 10 years earlier. Darden, who made a desperate plea to the judge not to allow the word to be uttered in court called it “the most vicious, nastiest, ugliest word in the human language.” Ito refused. Cochran responded with equal fervor, saying that he was “ashamed” that Darden would stoop to become an apologist for a “racist cop,” adding that he was appalled that Darden had “the temerity … the unmitigated gall” (one of Cochran’s favorite phrases) to suggest that black jurors might possibly become inflamed upon hearing the word. Moreover, he said it with a straight face.

The theatrics seemed somewhat forced on both sides, but Cochran came out on top, the old counter puncher outgunning the young slugger by the sheer force of his counterattack. With a few well-timed shots, Cochran had succeeded in turning Darden into an Uncle Tom.

Cochran’s protestations about the common-sense abilities of jurors to decide the Simpson case based upon the “facts” (what facts, Johnnie? He killed her!) rather than their emotions were most interesting in light of a comment he allegedly made to Patricia Cochran (who happens to be white). According to her, Cochran had said that if he could get “just one black juror” impaneled that he could guarantee a hung jury for Simpson. (Cochran denied making the remark).

To fully appreciate the wisdom of Cochran’s tactics in the Simpson case (as in most cases he tries), one must understand the climate in post-Rodney King Los Angeles. The history of animosity between the black community and the LAPD is legendary. No one (at least off-the-record) would deny that besides the history-making Mark Fuhrman, there are undoubtedly plenty of “racist cops” on the LAPD. Just take a walk down a street in Watts and ask anybody.

As writer James Ellroy put it, re Cochran’s tactics to get his superstar client off: “To offer the historic oppression of blacks as a salient factor of mitigation in an adrenaline-fueled double lust homicide is preposterous.” Maybe so, but it was a darn slick move. Not to mention the fact that it worked. …

Cochran may not be a great lawyer, but he always knows the audience he’s playing to. He knows that his arguments don’t have to have any foundation in reality. It’s the repetition — the drumming of the words into the brain — that matters. It’s all in the delivery, the rhythm. Jimmy Swaggart knows this. James Brown knows this. Al Sharpton knows this. And Johnnie Cochran knows it.

Cochran is a man without shame. During the Michael Jackson child molestation case, he actually suggested that Jackson had been targeted because he was black. “For all of us who are African Americans,” Cochran opined shortly after Jackson had paid $20 million to shut his accuser up, “I think there’s a real lesson here. If they will try to do that to Michael Jackson, they will try to do it to anyone.”

The remedy for this incipient racism, according to Cochran, is “to get away from that plantation mentality, to get away from the self-hatred we’ve been taught for 300 years.” As for a role model, Cochran suggests we look to rap artists. (Cochran represented both Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dog, respectively, on assault and murder charges). Cochran speaks glowingly of his rap brothers, “They are very Afro-centric,” he opines. “They are the breakthrough.”

The fact that Cochran would embrace the most racist contingent of black culture — an illiterate group of punks, bigots and murderers — people who make a living peddling anthems of hate … tells us everything we need to know about Cochran’s “true” values.

In the film clips shown on the Geraldo Rivera show, in addition to seeing Cochran’s former mistress before she’d been used up and tossed aside, we also got a glimpse of a young — and very different — Johnnie Cochran. There was Johnnie sporting a huge Afro, decked out in a Superfly outfit — a ridiculous blue checked sports coat worn over a bright red shirt with a huge Mod Squad collar. White plastic boots matched white pants and a white belt. A massive silver medallion dangled from his neck.

And there, in an earlier photo, we saw the man behind the mask. In the shot, a young Cochran — just barely able to grow a moustache — stares out at you. The eyes of the man in the photo are dead. There’s no twinkle in them. No smile. The man appears to be on the verge of scowling. The anger is pent-up; nonetheless it’s a tangible presence. We might imagine a man with this face derisively referring to people he didn’t like (as Patricia Cochran said Johnnie often did) as “stupid” or “psychotic.” We might imagine a man with this face calling those who disagreed with him “dumb rednecks,” or “hillbillies.” It is not a nice face. Certainly not one you would trust.

Today, more so than any time in history, the unfortunate fact is that a trial is anything but a search for truth. As defense attorney Alan Dershowitz once stated: “The defendant wants to hide the truth because he’s generally guilty. The defense attorney’s job is to make sure that the jury does not arrive at the truth.”

From the O.J. Simpson case, the Menendez brothers murder case, (we’ll deal with Leslie Abramson, who ranks right up there alongside Cochran in making a mockery of the word “justice,” in a forthcoming segment of this series), as well as other high-profile cases, we have witnessed, first-hand, the cult of celebrity; we’ve seen for ourselves the damage it has done to our ability to think clearly — to distinguish the make-believe from the real, the fact from the image. We have learned that television — which could have been the great educator — has opted to take the low road, which means that rather than enlightening commentary, TV news viewers are subjected to a never-ending parade of hucksters and shysters (referred to as “experts”), all hawking their wares. These schlockmeisters include gossip-mongers, low-rent attorneys, sleazoid private eyes, wannabe authors, fashion critics, psychics — even dog psychiatrists.

And from Johnnie Cochran — a cheap lounge act in a bad suit — we have also learned many things, not the least of which is the fact that racism is indeed alive and well … and that its proponents come in more than one color.

This is part of an on-going series in which S.L. Goldman will “explore” the personas of high-profile defense attorneys. Next in line: Leslie Abramson.


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