Most Americans identify Johnnie L. Cochran’s career with the Dream Team, the legal team that won the acquittal of O.J. Simpson on charges of murder in 1995. But Cochran also fostered a dream that gave a voice to the disenfranchised and exploited.
The 67-year-old lawyer, who died of an inoperable brain tumor March 29, 2005, blazed a legal trail as a civil rights lawyer and came to court each day demonstrating style and substance.
“His credentials were well established before O.J. Simpson,” says James D. Montgomery, managing partner of the Chicago office of The Cochran Firm. As a proficient and instinctual attorney, Cochran dispelled the stereotypical myth of the incompetent black lawyer portrayed on television’s Amos and Andy, says Montgomery.
Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. adds, “He became a national frame of reference for the dispossessed.”
Although celebrities like Michael Jackson and Rosa Parks are listed on Cochran’s client roster as having received successful settlements, his “proudest moment as a lawyer” was June 10, 1997, the day Elmer “Geronimo ji Jaga” Pratt, a former Black Panther and Vietnam War veteran, was released after spending 27 years behind bars. Losing Pratt’s case in 1972 (he was arrested in 1970) devastated Cochran, but he never stopped fighting for Pratt’s release.
“Johnny believed in me … when few others did,” says Sean “P. Diddy” Combs in response to Cochran’s legal support in 2001 against bribery and gun charges. That same dedication motivated Cochran to represent the people that he described as the “No-J’s.” He brought national recognition to police brutality and racial profiling — phrases that became household terms and synonymous with Cochran litigation.
He exacted changes in the use of police coercion after representing Abner Louima and prompted the LAPD to abandon a specific chokehold that left several young men dead. In 1998, when two white New Jersey state troopers opened fire on four young black and Hispanic men for “driving while black,” Cochran settled their case for $13 million. More importantly, he inspired the subsequent nationwide anti-profiling legislation that followed.
Linda Addison-Will, who accused Northwestern University in the wrongful death of her son Rashidi Wheeler, describes Cochran as a godsend. Wheeler died from an asthma attack during an unauthorized football practice.
Cochran was there when the NCAA institutionalized guidelines that accommodate asthmatics by requiring the presence of defibrillators and oxygen tanks at practices. “He wanted to see for himself that the tragedy that befell us didn’t befall another student,” says Addison-Will. “He went beyond the call of duty.”
There was no problem too insignificant for him. Buses for affluent shoppers stopped directly in front of a Buffalo, New York, shopping mall, but Cynthia Wiggins, a single mother on her way to work, died crossing an eight-lane highway because mall officials didn’t want undesirables from nearby minority communities to have easy access to the facilities. In 1999, Cochran settled her case for $2.6 million, but also donated a substantial part of his fee to establish a day care center for unwed teen mothers in Wiggins, honor.
Montgomery remembers Cochran as a graceful celebrity