- 3/29/05: Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on October 2, 1937, the great-grandson of a slave.He was raised in Los Angeles and attended UCLA. He graduated in 1959 and earned his law degree from Loyola Marymount University in 1963. In 1965, he entered private practice and opened his own firm, Cochran, Atkins & Evans. His current practice, The Cochran Firm, was established in 1981 and has offices in 12 states and the District of Columbia. I was priviliged to serve as co-counsel with the Cochran Firm in the tragic NHC Nursing Home Fire Litigation here in Nashville with Parke Morris of the Memphis office of the Cochran Firm. Johnnie Cochran tried several cases in Tennesee and I hoped to someday to try a case with him as co-counsel for the plaintiff(s). He died of a brain tumor at age 67.
- While his public fame was achieved in the O.J. Simpson case, I will remember Johnnie Cochran's legacy as a leader in Civil Rights litigation involving abuse of power by the police and state. On October 24, 2002 Cochran gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California and summarized his career and devotion to Civil Rights. He was, quite simply, an inspirational lawyer:
- "On January 10, 1963 I was sworn in as a lawyer, so next January 10 I will have practiced law for 40 years and I've loved every minute of it. Very often you are defined by others, and if you feel there is perhaps a difference in how you'd like to be seen and how you see yourself and the perception of others, perhaps one of the best ways is to present the evidence. What I've tried to do in this book is share with the reader my life in court, my life as a lawyer.
I decided I wanted to be a lawyer when I was 11 years of age, and I remember clearly a discussion with my mother around the dinner table - my mother had aspirations that I would become a doctor - and I said, Mom, I really want to be a lawyer. You could say I won my first case, because I somehow persuaded my mother that I should go into law, and she and my father were very supportive thereafter. But I really didn't know much about what a lawyer did at that point; I just knew that I liked to persuade and to argue and cajole and be an advocate.
It wasn't until I was in Los Angeles in high school on May 17, 1954 when things crystallized more for me: the day the decision of Brown v. the Board of Education was rendered by the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall argued that case before the Supreme Court. I started to read about this great man and how he and his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, had crafted this amazing strategy which said that separate but equal was inherently unequal - and that had been the law of the land in these United States since 1896 in the case Plessy v. Ferguson. All of a sudden, after almost 60 years, the law was changed.
Marshall talked about using the law to change society for the better. I thought, Now I know my calling. I want to be a lawyer, but I'd love to try to practice law in that fashion. Many of the cases that I've taken I've tried to use to bring about some social change where I thought it appropriate.
Many of you will think, Well, gee, he's only tried criminal cases. I've tried a lot of criminal cases in my time over the course of 40 years; most of the criminal cases I tried, I tried them as a prosecutor. The first day I was sworn into law, I went immediately into court and started trying cases as a young city attorney, a prosecutor. I tried between 100 and 200 jury trials during that first couple of years. I became very familiar with being in court, being an advocate and speaking on my feet. But I never lost my desire for what I really wanted to do.
I became concerned as a prosecutor that I was very often prosecuting young men, usually African-American men, charged with resisting, interfering, obstructing an officer in the performance of his duty on section 148 of the Penal Code. We have cases that said that mere words could be obstructive; if you say something to a police officer and they don't like it, you could go to jail. But in these instances, I was very often in downtown L.A., many times the defendant would come into court all bandaged up. I would keep hearing reports of how only reasonable force was used to subdue this defendant. I started to feel as though we were part of a symphony, that the tune was played over at city hall, we were just carrying it out, and I knew if I convicted this person that then they couldn't turn around and sue the city of Los Angeles.
When I first started practicing law in the 1960s, no person had ever won a case against the City of Los Angeles for violation of their civil rights. There came a time when I felt morally I just could not try these cases anymore. I then left the office and my time in private practice has been interesting to say the least.
I'm a big believer in the fact that life is about preparation, preparation, preparation. But success does not occur until your opportunity meets preparation; you have to be one of those people who seizes upon the opportunity when it comes along. Several times in my career I've been involved in these cases. Early on as a young lawyer I was involved in a matter in Los Angeles, shortly after the Watts riots in 1966, the Deadwyler case; it was televised live because it was right after the riots and people were so concerned about another conflagration. I became known at that time in L.A. Still, my goal was to handle these civil rights cases, and as I became more experienced I started looking at certain things that I thought needed to be changed.
One was the fact in Los Angeles we had this infamous choke hold, applied by the Los Angeles Police Department officers very often to women, children, whomever. It was a surprise maneuver, to take somebody down, where the officer felt this person might give them some trouble: a shoulder smash, the officer's behind you, you're choked out, in submission. The problem with the application of this hold in Los Angeles in 1979 and 1980 was that 17 young men died as a result of this choke hold. Fifteen were black and two were brown, and so it was being applied to these young people, perhaps the disenfranchised of society and I had a lot of concern about that.
About 1981 I got the James Thomas Mincey case. He was choked out; he didn't die right away, his mother observed it, she was one of my star witnesses and we ended up winning that case. But more important than winning, we used that case to obtain a moratorium on the choke hold in Los Angeles. The chief of police then was Darryl Gates. They were trying to understand why it was that all these black kids were dying and Darryl Gates' famous quote was, "Well, you know, with 'normal' people…" As though African-Americans weren't. He didn't really understand that the officers were improperly trained with regard to the application of the choke hold. If they applied this hold, they felt they had to continue applying it until the body stops struggling. But we found, through doctors and scientists, that the body will involuntarily struggle as it's losing oxygen, so they continued to keep this hold on until the person died. So when we got this moratorium over their objection in 1982, I can tell you today that there have been no more deaths in Los Angeles since that time.
Another area that I felt that needed to be changed was the "hogtying procedure," where a person - misdemeanor or felony - could be handcuffed behind his or her back, then trussed up with cord restraints around their ankles and the two tied together. Then, if the person was large, they were laid down. Several people died and I had a case where a man who'd been chased for a long period of time was caught and hogtied, and he died. Among others, we used that case again to stop that procedure. It was barbaric; it violated the civil rights of those individuals. But it also affected all the rest of us, because I understood that as Dr. King had said, that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
The Case of Geronimo Pratt
The case that I believe best defines my career involves Geronimo Pratt, and I think it's an instructive case on a number of levels. I was appointed by the court to represent Mr. Pratt for a murder that had occurred in December 1968 in Los Angeles County. (We didn't go to trial until 1972 because Mr. Pratt had been involved in some other matters and he had been arrested around 1970.) It was a particularly brutal murder: A lady was killed on a tennis court and her husband became the star witness. Mr. Pratt was the leader of the Black Panther Party. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was difficult to obtain a fair trial under the circumstances. Now, he was an extremely bright young man. I had a lot in common with him; I wasn't in the Black Panthers, but he was from Louisiana and I'm from Louisiana; I'd gone to UCLA, he was a high-potential student at UCLA. He was, in fact, a certified American hero: he had been on two tours of Vietnam and came back much decorated; he'd won the soldier's medal, the silver star and the purple heart. But now he was charged with murder, was in jail, and he said he didn't do it. Our job was to defend him as vigorously as we could.
I was extremely naïve in this particular case, for a lot of reasons. My opponent was a man named Richard Kalustian, whom I had attended law school with. He was in my law school class, in my section, so I knew him for three years. He was in the district attorney's office, so when I made a discovery motion, I thought, Gee, I'll get all these reports and this is a fair trial. Everybody wants justice, I want to win, but his job, of course, as the prosecutor, is to seek justice: to make sure the guilty get punished and the innocent go free. But it wasn't exactly that way, as we went on to trial.
The trial lasted quite a while, and on a sweltering summer day in July 1972 a jury that had been out for almost 14 days - who had told Judge Kathleen Parker that they were hopelessly deadlocked after six days and she denied my motion of a mistrial - returned to that courtroom. I had never lost a murder case at that point. I looked at them as they read the verdict: guilty. It was the most difficult moment of my life as a trial lawyer. How did this happen? He was sentenced to life in prison, because California didn't have the death penalty; if they'd had at that point, he would have gotten death.
Life in prison meant he was locked down for 23 hours a day for the first eight years. I remember going to see him in San Quentin in September of 1972, and we put our hands up to each other and he said, "Cochran, please don't ever forget me." I didn't, and I promised him I wouldn't.
So what begins then is the saga of Geronimo Pratt: You've lost the case, he's in prison for life, the case goes on appeal, he loses the appeal, but we still continue to fight. And the reason why I'm not jaded particularly about the system is because not it convicted this man, but because we used that same system to ultimately free him.
My colleague, the prosecutor who I'd gone to school with, had an obligation to give us all the reports. Mr. Olsen, who survived his wife, came into court and pointed his finger at Mr. Pratt and says, That's the man who killed my wife. They didn't bother giving me the report where he positively identified two other guys two weeks before that; those guys happened to be the right guys who were ultimately killed. I never got that report. I didn't know that Pratt had been targeted by the FBI in a program called COINTELPRO, and how do I find these things out? Through the Freedom of Information Act.
An FBI agent by the name of Wes Swearingen one day came to my office and said, Cochran, you need to go and ask for the logs. The FBI was following all the Panthers around. Pratt's defense was, Look I didn't kill that lady, I would never do that, besides that I was in Oakland with these other Panthers. Because the FBI had so infiltrated the Panthers and there were two sections of the organization - Huey Newton's and Eldridge Cleaver's sections - none of the Newton people would ever testify for Pratt until much later, after he'd done all these years. But the FBI knew, because they'd wiretapped their phones. They'd also wiretapped my phone as counsel.
The star witness they used was a man named Julius Butler. In Los Angeles we have a very prominent church, FAME - the First AME Church. Butler had by 1997 risen to chairman of the board of trustees. He had been a Black Panther who had testified against Pratt. Back in 1972 I asked him, "Are you now, have you ever been, an informant for the FBI or anybody?" I asked that because Pratt would always say, "Cochran they're out to get me." I would say, "You're so paranoid, what are you talking about, they're out to get you?" I've learned that even paranoid people have real enemies; he was right and I was wrong. When he said they were out to get him, they really were.
When J. Edgar Hoover said, "Neutralize the Panthers," that meant kill them, lock them up or whatever. My colleague used perjured testimony. When he said he hadn't been an informant, he'd been an informant 33 times for the FBI. When he said he wasn't an informant for the L.A. DA's office, they had paid him money. He was armed when he would come to court, unbeknownst to us, because he'd convinced the prosecution he was afraid of the Panthers and he had to have a gun when he came in.
These things we find out after the fact; now, Pratt's still in custody with his life pretty much in jeopardy. He's become a pretty mild prisoner; he's helped save lives, he's been a responsible, intelligent young man, but he's still in prison. After he'd done 13 years, the authorities came to him and said, "If you will just say you committed this crime, we'll let you out in a year." He said, "I will never ever accept any kind of parole, because I am innocent and I'll never do that." I often times ask myself, Would I have the strength to do that? He stayed 14 more years. Finally, after I wrote my first book, Journey to Justice, and I was touring, I got a call that the courts had finally granted us a hearing based upon all this evidence we kept showing them that this man was innocent. I cut my book trip short.
We went back to L.A. County. My old classmate, Kalustian, was now a California Supreme Court judge. When I asked what I thought about him, I said, he wasn't fit to be on the bench because he used this perjured testimony. They said, Okay now you've got a new trial, and because Judge Kalustian's going to be one of the witnesses and because Mr. Cochran maligned him, we have to transfer this case to Orange County. One of the real bright things of this story is a judge named Everett Dickey. It was his last case; he was about to retire. He gave us a hearing, in December 1996 and January 1997. He took another three months or so to write an opinion. On June 10, 1997 Geronimo Pratt got out of jail a free man - at least temporarily. But the DA's office in L.A. County said, No, we're going to appeal it, until finally the appellate court finally said that Geronimo Pratt had no trial. So he was freed. But we just couldn't leave it there. I said, This isn't right. We've got to file this lawsuit, which we did. It involved a lot of people up in the Bay Area, because by this time all the Panthers who wouldn't testify gave declarations that he was in fact there, because they'd understood how they'd been infiltrated. We ended up resolving his case for somewhere close to $5 million, and the FBI paid the largest amount they've ever paid. For the 27 years we weren't paid one penny; it wasn't about being paid. It was about somebody locked up every night.
Fighting Police Brutality
The only mention I'll make of the Simpson case is that it provided a sea-change for all of our lives. I'm still the same lawyer as I was before, but the opportunities were somewhat different and I was asked to move to New York, at least part of the time, to do a television show. The same justice issues I saw in California I saw there.
I started representing Abner Louima, victim of probably the worst case of police brutality I've ever seen. He was sodomized by a police officer in a jail cell. It wasn't enough just to recover money for him. New York had a rule that you couldn't talk to a police officer for 48 hours after a shooting, or a beating or some allegation, and in that 48 hours the union lawyers would talk to them, they'd get all the officers together. By the time they came back everybody was saying the same thing. We knew this, so for the first time in history my partners Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld and I sued. (They now run the Innocence Project, and there are somewhere between 70 and 100 people since the Simpson case that they've gotten out of jail, all pro bono.) We would not rest until we got rid of the 48-hour rule; we would not rest until an officer who wants to come forward and tell what happened could go to somebody other than union lawyers. We wanted to make that union pay so they would change how they do business.
We represented the New Jersey Four: four boys, on their way to Greensboro, North Carolina, to try out for basketball scholarships. These kids thought they were great basketballers, and their mothers pooled the money and rented a Dodge Caravan for them. In New York, if you're a black mother and you have kids and they're going down Interstate 95, routinely you tell your kids, "Be careful, you're probably going to be stopped by the troopers." We call that racial profiling - DWB, driving while black or brown. It does, in fact, exist. How do I know that? Because these boys are just coming through the tunnel, a kid named Keshon Moore is driving the car. He puts it on cruise control because he doesn't want to get stopped. Troopers pull up behind him. Danny Reyes, a young Hispanic young man, is in the right front seat, they get pulled over. As he tries to put the car into park, it slips into reverse - it's pretty new to him - the car starts to roll backwards. The troopers jump back, they start to fire. They fire point blank, 11 shots into this car. Danny Reyes says his arm's up in the front, his arm is shattered; he's about 6'7" or 6'8", and to this day he can't go for any rebounds because he can't straighten his arm anymore. Two of the boys are in the back, you can't really see them - Rayshawn Brown and Jarmaine Grant - and one of them is shot in the back. The bullet was very close to his spine; he can move, but you can't move that bullet. The car goes down into a ditch, and as the troopers pull them out of the car, what do they find? They figure, These must be drug guys, right? They find a lot of clothes as you might expect, but they also find a John Steinbeck novel and a Bible, and maybe that's why they're still here. The state of New Jersey became the first state in the union to admit that they racially profiled. We changed the law and now other states have changed the law.