New York’s Got What Johnnie Cochran Wants

Johnnie Cochran had finished his speech and returned to his seat next to the Haitian immigrant Abner Louima when the Rev. Al Sharpton began one of the call-and-response routines that he often uses to pump up a crowd. Earlier in the evening, he had trundled out a well-worn “No justice, no peace.” But this time, Mr. Sharpton tried something different.

“Johnnie Cochran!” he yelled as he stood at the podium.

The mostly black and tan crowd inside the Harlem headquarters of Mr. Sharpton’s activist group, the National Action Network, roared its approval.

“Johnnie Cochran!” the reverend bellowed again.

The cheers came back stronger this time and were recorded by a half-dozen or so TV news crews covering the Oct. 28 rally for Mr. Louima. After another round, Mr. Sharpton took the cheer to its logical conclusion. “If it don’t fit,” he brayed, then windmilled an extended index finger in Mr. Cochran’s direction. Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. smiled as he mouthed the words, “You must acquit,” along with the rest of the audience, but as the moment ended in another burst of applause and laughter, the defense attorney’s proud face seemed momentarily clouded with frustration.

“I do not want that as my epitaph: If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” Mr. Cochran told The Observer a day later in the office that he keeps at Court TV’s production offices on Third Avenue in midtown. He was smiling, but he was serious.

It was the second time in two days that a prominent black New Yorker had invoked some version of the brilliantly simple rhyming couplet that Mr. Cochran had used on Sept. 28, 1995, in his closing arguments at the criminal trial of O.J. Simpson. The phrase, referring, of course, to the infamous bloody gloves, has shadowed Mr. Cochran even as he has moved beyond the case, beyond Los Angeles. To New York.

Socially and politically, Manhattan’s hierarchy is as complex as one of Mr. Cochran’s Big Bang neckties. But he is already rising to the challenge: He has barely been in the city a year, and he has broken into the city’s media culture via a prime-time show on Court TV; into politics and law, representing Mr. Louima in his $155 million civil claim against the city; into the business world and high society, both black and white; into sports, making a Jerry Maguire lunge for professional black athletes.

“My metabolism and my energy level,” he said, “are probably more geared to New York than they are to L.A.” Already, he has been admitted to practice in the federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan; at press time, he was waiting to be admitted to the New York State bar. (An official there said that Mr. Cochran was a shoo-in.) He said that as long as he’s in New York, “I will speak out because I am not bashful on issues that I think are important. And I want to be part of the fabric at this point.”

Mr. Cochran, said Mr. Sharpton, “is smart enough to ingratiate himself with people that have already fit in. So to go to One Hundred Black Men [a group of powerful conservative black Manhattan professionals], to go to my place, it makes the comfort level rise a lot higher, a lot faster, than if he was coming in as an outsider and had the disdain of the local community.”

“I think he’s interested in becoming a person of real importance around town,” said one New York corporate executive, a friend of Mr. Cochran who requested anonymity. “That’s what he was in L.A., and that’s what his mind tells him he ought to be [here].”

‘That’s Veryvery Interesting’

In his austere Court TV office, which is decorated with just a few drawings and photos of himself, Mr. Cochran came off like a neon sign of positivity. Although he dresses impeccably, he wears loud ties the same way that defense attorney Gerry Spence favors fringe and buckskin. The yellow-and-blue number that Mr. Cochran was wearing on the evening of Oct. 29 could best be described as post-Impressionistic.

Looking a good decade younger than his 60 years, he talked in rapid clips, used the words “wonderful” and “impressive” a lot, and had a habit of stringing together two verys as if they were one word, as in: “That’s a veryvery interesting question.” This seemed to be his way of saying that he was veryvery interested in keeping the interview on a breezy plane.

Questions about O.J. Simpson take Mr. Cochran into veryvery land. “I don’t run from my involvement in the Simpson case,” Mr. Cochran said, “but I don’t want to be remembered as [if] that was the only thing I ever did.”

Therein lies one of Mr. Cochran’s talents: answering the question directly and enthusiastically, yet in a manner totally unsatisfying to his interlocutor.

His successful defense of Mr. Simpson made him a national legal superstar and a bona fide celebrity. But his role in the Trial of the Century also served to obscure the achievements for which Mr. Cochran wants to be known: specifically, the reputation that he enjoys and cherishes in Los Angeles as a crusader against police brutality and a defender of minorities’ civil rights.

Mr. Cochran’s decision to begin commuting to New York to do, four times a week, Cochran & Company, a prime-time legal talk show for Court TV, certainly makes sense as the next step in a strategy to move beyond his connection to the Simpson trial. But the attorney was careful to point out that his move to the city “wasn’t anything I sought out.” Rather, he said, he was invited by Steve Brill, the cable network’s founder and one of the media elite’s frat boys. Indeed, Mr. Brill, who calls himself a “total Cochran fan,” told The Observer that he spent “a lot of time” talking Mr. Cochran into the idea of a show. “My wife and I had Johnnie and Dale [Mr. Cochran’s second wife] up to our apartment for cocktails and spent time helping them hook up with real estate brokers and introducing them to some people. It was hard, actually, getting him to think about leaving California,” said Mr. Brill.

By September, Mr. Cochran had a more substantial reason for making the bicoastal commute. On Aug. 9, Mr. Louima was allegedly sodomized with an object resembling a broomstick by someone at the 70th Precinct police station in Brooklyn. By Labor Day, Mr. Cochran had joined the joined the legal team for Mr. Louima, bringing along Simpson trial alumni Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. Now the East Coast tabloids have their own “Dream Team” to write about. And Mr. Cochran has a potentially important civil rights case–one much more ideologically pure than Mr. Simpson’s.

If Mr. Louima’s civil action against the city ever goes to trial, and if Mr. Cochran ever gets to argue it, it could be a chance for him to shake off the bloody glove imagery and square his civil rights law past with the present. On the other hand, the so-called Dream Team that Mr. Louima has assembled looks like it could, at any moment, be beset with the same personality clashes that plagued the last Dream Team that Mr. Cochran headed.

Those tensions seemed evident when The Observer called attorney Brian Figeroux, who, along with his partners, Carl Thomas and Casilda Roper-Simpson, will carve up with Mr. Cochran’s team and personal injury lawyer Sanford Rubenstein a percentage of any winnings from Mr. Louima’s $155 million civil claim.

Asked how Mr. Cochran had come to the case, Mr. Figeroux said: “I have no correct interpretation or knowledge about how Cochran came on board. There are all sorts of different interpretations out there. You guys [i.e., the media] have to figure out what is the truth.” Mr. Figeroux also said that he had “no comment” regarding relations among the team’s lawyers.

Mr. Louima’s cousin and spokesman, Samuel Nicolas, said that Mr. Cochran “didn’t seek us out,” but that a family friend, a Haitian band leader named King Kino, had put in a call to the attorney.

Then Mr. Nicolas asked a question of his own. “Why is the focus on the attorney and not on the victim?” he said. “Whether it’s Johnny Appleseed, Johnny-Come-Lately or Johnnie Cochran, the focus should be on Abner Louima.”

Networking and Niche-Carving

As he waits to see the direction that Louima case will take, Mr. Cochran has been busy carving himself a niche in New York.

He said that he is contemplating buying an apartment. (He would only that he is currently renting one somewhere on 57th Street.) He is networking with the various factions of the city’s black community. His publicist, Terrie Williams, who has worked for actors Eddie Murphy and Malik Yoba and New York Knick Charlie Ward, is helping to make the right introductions and is setting up what she called “strategic alliances” for the lawyer. “I’m giving him an overview of the key players,” said Ms. Williams.

Elaine Williams, a vice president with Essence magazine, gave Mr. Cochran a booklet of recommendations “from doctors to manicurists to barber shops.” And when public relations executive Caroline Jones threw a party on Oct. 2 for Mr. Cochran’s 60th birthday, she asked the 400 or so party guests to provide him with tips for restaurants. For someone who has long demonstrated an affinity and a talent for working in front of a camera, it is no surprise that many of Mr. Cochran’s New York friends work in the media. Clarence Avant is chairman of Motown Records, Ed Lewis is publisher and chief executive of Essence, Earl Graves, whose Sag Harbor house Mr. Cochran visited this past summer, is president of Black Enterprise magazine, Bill Cosby is … Bill Cosby. The Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church is a Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brother.

Mr. Sharpton, who met Mr. Cochran through their mutual friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said he recognized Mr. Cochran’s talent for easing into the firmament when the attorney spoke at a rally and book-signing event that Mr. Sharpton put together in Harlem. “Halfway through the speech, he had talked about police brutality and … he never once went to O.J. I said, ‘This guy knows how to talk to an audience,’” said Mr. Sharpton. “He established his activist credentials with probably the most active group in town. So he did not come off as some shallow celebrity that the Big White Media had given us. He became a brother, instantly.”

Mr. Cochran is not averse to rubbing shoulders with the city’s Big White Establishment. He proudly recounted how, shortly after arriving in New York, he was invited to speak to The New York Times’ editorial board. He said that such an invitation was never forthcoming from the Los Angeles Times. And on the social front, Mr. Cochran is part of a tony list–virtually all-white–of celebrities, including Barbara Bush, Donna Hanover, Peter Jennings and George Stephanopoulos, who will be contributing letters to be auctioned off at Christie’s at a benefit for Literacy Partners that will be hosted by Diane Sawyer, Liz Smith and Bette Midler.

“I probably haven’t been here long enough to talk to you about all the various ramifications of power,” Mr. Cochran said, but he added, “I’m intrigued by the Mayor here.”

Mr. Cochran has yet to meet Mr. Giuliani, who will be his figurehead foe should the Louima case go to trial, yet with whom he shares some traits. “Unlike the mayors in Los Angeles, who traditionally have been more laid-back, he’s at everything,” Mr. Cochran said. “‘Peripatetic’ is probably a word you’d use about him. And you know, he’s a powerful Mayor. His presence is something, you know, whether you agree with his politics or not. He’s a real force here in the city.”

Mr. Cochran clearly knows better than to pick a fight with the biggest bully in the sandbox when he’s still getting used to the sand. Yet he seemed to be saying that the Mayor is on his radar screen. Whether or not Mr. Giuliani is scoping out Mr. Cochran is another question. According to a source close to the Police Department: “Cochran doesn’t exist here.”

At the National Action Network rally for Mr. Louima on Oct. 29, Mr. Cochran seemed prepared for a fight. “The city government is veryvery powerful. We trust they’re going to do the right thing,” he said, ending his speech with: “We plan to get justice at all costs.”

Mr. Cochran’s quest for fame and justice seems to be governed by two golden rules, which he recounted during the interview: “To those to whom much is given, much is required,” is one. The other is: “You can do good and you can do well at the same time.”

Mr. Cochran remembered: “Always in L.A., when I’d get $15 million against the L.A.P.D., they’d say, ‘What kind of civil rights lawyer are you?’ I’d say, ‘One who works hard.’”

Between Geronimo Pratt and O.J.

Mr. Cochran’s first taste of affluence came during his high school years. Though he is a native of the Shreveport, La., area, his family moved to California to take advantage of the industrial boom there (his father sold insurance) and eventually settled in Los Angeles. There, Mr. Cochran attended Los Angeles High School, where 3 percent of the student body was black, and many of his classmates lived in exclusive Hancock Park, home to the city’s powerful Van Nuys, Doheny and Chandler families. “I saw no reason why those things shouldn’t be within my reach as well,” he wrote in his autobiography, Journey to Justice.

It was his private practice, not his No. 3 position in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, that made him a local hero in Los Angeles’ black community long before the Simpson case. The case of Leonard Deadwyler may not be familiar to many New Yorkers, but it was an important beginning in bringing accountability to a Los Angeles police force that had a long history of brutality against blacks and other minorities. Deadwyler was shot to death in 1966 by police as he tried to drive his pregnant wife to the hospital. Even though the death was ruled accidental, the case made Mr. Cochran’s reputation as a defender of minorities when he represented Mrs. Deadwyler during a coroner’s inquest that was conducted on live television.

Before O.J. Simpson, Mr. Cochran’s most famous client, and the one the attorney is perhaps most proud of representing, was Elmer Geronimo Pratt. “When I promised Geronimo Pratt that I wouldn’t forget, I kept that promise,” said Mr. Cochran.

He was Mr. Pratt’s lawyer in 1972 when the Black Panther was sentenced to life in prison, eight years of it in solitary confinement, for the slaying of a woman in Los Angeles. But this past June, Mr. Cochran won Mr. Pratt’s acquittal after he showed that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office and the F.B.I. had suppressed crucial evidence about the case from the trial and that the prosecution’s key witness, a former F.B.I. informant and rival of Mr. Pratt, had lied on the stand in the first trial.

In light of those two cases, it’s ironic that Mr. Cochran’s national profile is derived from his involvement in a trial that author Jeffrey Toobin characterized as “an obscene parody of an authentic civil rights struggle” in his book about the Simpson case, The Run of His Life. (Mr. Cochran called Mr. Toobin’s assessment “absolutely preposterous. Jeffrey Toobin wouldn’t know a civil rights case if he saw one.”)

Mr. Toobin’s was not the only book to question Mr. Cochran’s virtue. In Life After Johnnie Cochran, his ex-wife, Barbara Cochran Berry, accused her former husband of philandering and physical abuse. In his account of the marriage in Journey to Justice, Mr. Cochran glossed over the first allegation and denied the second.

The couple’s daughter, Tiffany Cochran, who is a weekend anchor and reporter at WXIA-TV in Atlanta, told The Observer, “The whole trial sent my life into a tailspin.” Although she said she supported both parents, Ms. Cochran added that she felt her mother was “entitled to write what she wanted.” Asked if she thought the allegations were true, she replied: “It’s hard for me to imagine it’s true, but I can’t imagine her lying, either. It’s one of those strange things,” she said. “This trial brought out the worst in everybody.”

Fame, Not Obscurity

The minute he emerged from the Lincoln that had brought him the short distance from his office to a membership meeting of One Hundred Black Men in the Citicorp Building on Oct. 27, Mr. Cochran’s celebrity became apparent.

In the short walk to the building’s entrance, he was swarmed by people, black and white. “Hey, brother. Hey, fellas,” he called to his well-wishers. Then noted, “I can’t walk. I can’t walk down the street. Here and wherever I am now, because of television.” There was no regret in his voice.

Mr. Cochran originally had become a member of the Los Angeles chapter of this organization of successful conservative black professionals, which preaches economic empowerment. But in September, he was inducted into its New York chapter, along with New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew and Board of Education president William Thompson. (Former Mayor David Dinkins is a member, and Philadelphia-based Coca-Cola Bottling Company chairman Bruce Llewellyn is a founder.)

Mr. Cochran had come to fulfill a promise he had made to sign copies of Journey to Justice for his fellow members, which he began doing even as he took the elevator up to the designated floor. He wore a crisp, tailored deep-blue suit accented with a vertically striped blue-and-yellow tie. Vertical stripes also bordered the points of his shirt collar. A blue pocket square with yellow piping and a chunky gold ID bracelet completed the outfit. He moved with an urgency, yet did not seem hurried, even though the starting time for Cochran & Company was less than two hours away.

Though Mr. Cochran tried, there was little time to sign books. When the evening’s program started, he was called upon to give an impromptu speech. “The new civil rights frontier is economic empowerment,” the attorney told the crowd. “We’ve got to own our share of the rock.” Even in extemporaneous mode, Mr. Cochran’s remarks were tailored to the crowd. Neither O.J. Simpson nor Abner Louima were invoked; neither had to be. As Mr. Cochran stood behind the podium with the principals of One Hundred Black Men, Byron Lewis, another guest that evening and the chief executive of Uniworld, an Afrocentric advertising company, referred to Mr. Simpson by saying, “We shan’t mention his name.” Then Mr. Lewis led his own cheer involving Mr. Cochran’s famous phrase. “If the glove doesn’t fit …. ”

“You know what the white people said?” Mr. Lewis continued. “Oh, he’s playing the race card. Of course, what else would he play? What else would he play?”

When it came time for Mr. Cochran to return to the studio, a number of members of One Hundred Black Men formed a protective pocket around the attorney and pushed through the surging crowd. Mr. Cochran, looking like a President or a prizefighter, was led to the elevator and then down into the street, where a Department of Corrections supervisor had agreed to give him a lift back to the office. On the drive back, he handed Mr. Cochran a business card, identifying himself as a member of the New York chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and asked Mr. Cochran if he would speak at an upcoming conference. “I’d be real honored to do it. You just get me some dates,” said Mr. Cochran before he emerged from the car.

As he did, a cabdriver rolled to an abrupt halt in the middle of Third Avenue. The cabby, who was white and had formed his opinion of Mr. Cochran while watching the Trial of the Century on TV, rolled down his window. “Johnnie Cochran!” he yelled, “The best lawyer in the universe.”

Abner Louima’s attorney smiled. “Thank you,” he said, and hustled to make his show. New York’s Got What Johnnie Cochran Wants