Copyright 1994, The American Lawyer
Santa Monica plaintiffs attorney Browne Greene recalls the moment he learned just what the name Johnnie Cochran meant. Five years ago, Greene was picking a jury for a wrongful death case, and Cochran was slated to testify as one of his experts. "The judge was reading the list of prospective witnesses to find out if we had any conflicts with the jurors,'' Greene explains. As superior court judge Abby Soven rattled off the names, the jurors stared blankly ahead until she reached Johnnie Cochran's. "When the judge asked if anybody knew Johnnie, you should have seen the hands shoot up," Greene says. "One African-American man said that while he did not know Johnnie personally, he viewed him as an example to his community of a lawyer who had become a success," Greene recalls. "Another woman said she remembered him from the Deadwyler case, a big police abuse case of his in the 1960s. And then another said something similarly laudatory. At that point, the judge interjected, 'Well, we all know how well-respected Mr. Cochran is...' '' So it would seem. Take the panhandler who recently stopped Cochran and a colleague outside the Los Angeles superior court building to ask him first for money and then his business card. "This guy just assumed that if I was walking with Johnnie, I must be his client," says Janine Jeffery, who in fact is a solo practitioner in Los Angeles and handling a case with Cochran. "So after he greets Johnnie as if they are the oldest of friends, he congratulates me for having the best lawyer in the world!" "Johnnie is like the main man - the man to see if you're in trouble," says Clifford Mosby, an investigator who works regularly with Cochran. "There's a widespread feeling that if you've suffered an injustice, he's the guy you want on your team." When visiting a client at L.A. County Jail, Mosby relates, he witnessed a scuffle between a prisoner and some guards. "As the sheriffs were taking this guy away, he started yelling, 'You wait! I'm going to get Johnnie Cochran on you! You just wait!' Scaring these guards with Johnnie Cochran was this guy's last, ultimate threat. And it's not the first time I've seen that. I've heard other guys in jail drop Johnnie's name loudly if they're being hassled, and I know perfectly well Johnnie doesn't know them from Adam." The 56-year-old Cochran has earned such a savior status after years of criminal work, successfully defending such notorious clients as the actor Todd Bridges, the former star of Diff'rent Strokes, whom Cochran got acquitted in 1989 of attempted murder, attempted involuntary manslaughter, and assault with a deadly weapon, despite four eyewitness accusations. He has also recently been hired by Sean Abrams, an acquaintance of rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg, after the two were charged in a 1993 murder. And in Cochran's most paparazzi-driven case, Michael Jackson retained the lawyer last December to deal with a civil suit and criminal investigations stemming from allegations that Jackson sexually abused a 13-year-old boy. (Jackson is also represented by Howard Weitzman, a partner at Katten Muchin Zavis & Weitzman in Los Angeles.) Equally important, however, Cochran has become renowned, particularly among minorities, for successfully suing municipalities in suits involving excessive force or sexual abuse by police officers. In 1992, for example, he won a $9.4 million jury award on behalf of Patricia Diaz, a 13-year-old girl molested by an L.A. police officer, which was the largest verdict ever against the city of Los Angeles in a police misconduct matter. And in a case that could set precedent by expanding municipal liability, Cochran is handling the suits of Reginald Denny and three other victims of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, who claim that by failing to provide sufficient police in South Central, the city of Los Angeles violated their right to equal protection. Clearly, Cochran, who brings an impresario's touch to "doing well by doing good," has run with his reputation as a crusader for justice. The ten associates and of counsel at the Law Offices of Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., in Los Angeles are all members of minority groups; prominent on the wall outside Cochran's office is a photograph of a hand bloodied by a blow from a police officer; and the firm's brochure states in bold type on its first page that "each lawyer in the firm has literally adopted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s maxim that 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' " At the same time, though, Cochran is tough to pigeonhole. Though his firm still thrives on criminal defense and police brutality matters, it has moved into insurance defense, entertainment and sports law, and securities work. Clients include the singer Lou Rawls and the former football player turned actor and activist Jim Brown as well as corporate entities such as Atlantic Richfield Company and the Resolution Trust Corporation. And in something of a role reversal, at press time Cochran was defending the University of Southern California in an employment discrimination suit brought by a black assistant athletic director. As much as the firm's practice has blossomed, the Denny and Jackson cases represent an arrival of sorts for Cochran - the climax of a 31-year career as both a criminal and a civil rights lawyer. "Johnnie has always had a certain visibility, but lately I've been talking about how high his Q-rating is," says Carl Douglas, managing attorney of Cochran's firm, referring to a way of measuring of the popularity of television and movie stars. Douglas, who is currently working on the Michael Jackson matter as well as trying the USC case with Cochran, has spent more than a few moments pacing the halls while Cochran entertains his well-wishers. "I've never been with him where he's gotten this much unsolicited attention," Douglas remarks. Along the way the peripatetic Cochran has won friends as far -flung as Los Angeles district attorney Gilbert Garcetti, for whom he drummed up support among the black clergy during the 1993 election campaign; the actor Denzel Washington, who consulted Cochran for his role as a plaintiffs lawyer in the movie Philadelphia; and a variety of bailiffs, court clerks, and reporters who have run to him with legal problems from divorces to real estate matters. An active Democratic fund-raiser, Cochran recently co-hosted a cocktail party for Kathleen Brown, the Democratic hopeful for governor of California. Indeed, his resume reads like a scrapbook of civic activity ranging from his service on the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners to his tenure as president of the Black Business Association of Los Angeles. "Johnnie moves back and forth between a number of different worlds," observes John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, who has known Cochran since 1973. "And that is a tough juggling act for any successful African-American man." "Johnnie's like a shark," says one close colleague, turning his hand into a fin snaking though the air. "Even when he's right there with you, and you feel like you're his best friend, he's looking past you and thinking ahead. He has to keep on moving or he'll die."
Swimming Pools and Archery Ranges
There's no small measure of charisma involved in all this. Cochran has a certain choreographed charm - accessorized by designer suits and a Rolls-Royce whose license plate reads "JC JR." Whether smitten or skeptical, observers describe this style as genuine, practiced, and disarming by turns. Indeed, to many who know him, the real man is as elusive as his flash is pronounced. But they agree on one thing: The name Johnnie Cochran engenders a sort of collective genuflection in the Los Angeles legal community that can leave the more cynical feeling a little lonely and weary for the asking. When recently discussing Cochran, for example, one superior court clerk looked up from her book, arched her eyebrows, and whispered that he might be a little too smooth for her taste - only to be sternly taken to task by an eavesdropping colleague who insisted that, in her opinion, "Johnnie Cochran's feet do not touch the ground." "When Johnnie comes to court, he just kind of waltzes in, takes over the courtroom, and then waltzes out again," notes Margaret Smith, staff assistant in the office of the criminal courts coordinator for the County of Los Angeles. "There is chaos in front of him, chaos behind him but he is calm," Smith continues. "He's in total control. It's like he waves his wand and then goes off into the sunset. And you wonder, 'What was that? Was he just here? Who was that masked man?' " "Look, people like Johnnie, and Johnnie likes people," says John Van de Kamp, the former attorney general of California who, when he was the district attorney of Los Angeles during the late 1970s, hired Cochran for the number three position in the office. "That's one reason he's so effective." Van de Kamp, now a partner at the Los Angeles office of New York's Dewey Ballantine, praises Cochran's flexibility and ability to get things done "by relating to the power base within, rather than always fighting from the outside." Judge Stephen Trott, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, worked with Cochran as Van de Kamp's executive assistant D.A and describes him as the quintessential facilitator. "One reason Johnnie is so influential is that he treats people well," Trott explains. "Johnnie knows exactly what he is doing. He is very savvy." "Look, it's just easier to get along, to be able to relate to all different kinds of people," shrugs Cochran, who tends to call women "baby" and men "young man," and can work a room with a whirl that on a good day makes Bill Clinton look shy. "You get things done a lot more effectively that way. "Plus," he grins, "it's more fun." Cochran seems to have inherited some of his silky style from his 78-year-old father, Johnnie Cochran, Sr. The senior Cochran is a soulful man - a quieter, less kinetic version of Cochran Jr. - who lives with his son and daughter-in-law above Hollywood, in a sleek, contemporary house with sweeping views of the Los Angeles basin. Cochran Sr., who friends call "The Chief," provides a window on his enigmatic son. He explains that he and his late wife, Hattie, encouraged their four children to have an ecumenical - perhaps even color-blind - approach to life, and in so doing never to doubt that the world was their oyster. "We wanted them to be sensitive to things like racism, of course," he offers. "But we did not want them to get derailed or consumed by anger." Cochran grew up in a middle-class household that his wife, Dale, calls "Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Donna Reed Show, all wrapped up in one." He attended Los Angeles High School in the early 1950s as one of no more than 30 black students on a campus of about 2,000. "If you were a person who integrated well, as I was, you got to go to people's houses and envision another life," Cochran says of his teenage years. "I knew kids who had things I could only dream of. I remember going to someone's house and seeing a swimming pool. I was like, 'That's great!' " Cochran recollects. "Another guy had an archery range in his loft. An archery range! I could not believe it. I had never thought about archery! But it made me get off my butt and say, 'Hey, I can do this!' " After graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1959, Cochran attended Loyola Marymount University Loyola School of Law. "I love to talk, to persuade people, so I thought law would be good," says Cochran, who honed his salesman skills selling insurance part time in college at the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, then the third-largest insurance company for blacks in the U.S. (His father worked at Golden State for 36 years.) "I was the kind of student that didn't want to look like a jerk, always raising my hand. But I would sit there and pray that I would be called on. That was my competitive spirit lying in wait."
"Mr. Cochran Wants To Know"
In 1965, after nearly three years as a deputy city attorney, prosecuting a wide range of misdemeanors, Cochran entered private practice with the late Gerald Lenoir, a seasoned criminal lawyer. Not long thereafter, he formed Cochran, Atkins & Evans, which specialized in criminal law with offices in the mid-Wilshire area and in Compton, not far from South Central. "That was the closest to a storefront I ever had," says Cochran of the Compton branch. An inflammatory case immediately spun Cochran into the limelight. In May 1966 Leonard Deadwyler, a young black man, was shot and killed by the police as he was rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital. The Deadwyler family, represented by Cochran, disputed the officers' claims that they were acting in self-defense because Deadwyler had made a sudden move when confronted by the police. Reeling from the Watts riots of the summer before, which in part had been sparked by anger in the ghetto over police brutality, the city of L.A. allowed the coroner's inquest into the Deadwyler case to be televised, and, in so doing, launched Cochran as a star. Under the inquest procedure, Cochran had to ask all his questions through the deputy district attorney who was handling the case. "I was whispering into his ear and passing notes with all my questions, and he would have to ask, 'Mr. Cochran wants to know this. Mr. Cochran wants to know that.' What Mr. Cochran wanted to know was why they shot this man so that he fell over dead on his pregnant wife! "To me, this was clearly a bad shooting," he continues. "But the D.A. did not file charges, and when our firm filed a civil suit we lost. Those were extremely difficult cases to win in those days. But what Deadwyler confirmed for me was that this issue of police abuse really galvanized the minority community. It taught me that these cases could really get attention."
"Out With Your Hands Up!"
By the late 1970s Cochran had a flourishing trial practice, handling a mix of drug and other criminal cases as well as a number of police brutality matters, which - as seemed the order of the day in the 1960s and 1970s - the government generally won. But, he says, he was ready for a change. So in late 1977, when Van de Kamp approached him about coming to work as his number three aide in the D.A.'s office, Cochran jumped: "In those days, if you were a criminal defense lawyer, even though you might be very good, you were not considered one of the good guys, one of the very top rung." Cochran knew that by spending some time in the D.A.'s office he could not only refashion his image but also establish contacts that would help him expand his practice once he left. "I knew him from his work on the Deadwyler case," Van de Kamp explains, adding that he wanted "to broaden" an office traditionally dominated by white males. In addition to helping Van de Kamp hire more minorities and speaking at various schools and groups in the black community, Cochran oversaw a new team that, with a special "rollout unit" of deputy D.A.s, investigated police shootings independent of the department. "That was my baby," says Cochran. "I worked closely with [current L.A. district attorney] Gil Garcetti on the rollout [unit]." (At the time, Garcetti reported directly to Cochran.) After three years Cochran was ready to strike out on his own again - but not before having his own run-in with the LAPD. One Saturday afternoon in 1979 Cochran was driving his Rolls-Royce in Hollywood with two of his young children. Suddenly, he was pulled over by a squad car. Cochran recollects: "The sirens are going and the police are yelling, 'Get out with your hands up!' So I get out, and they're standing behind the cop car with their guns drawn," his voice careening through the memory. "Well, talk about an illegal search and seizure! These guys just go through ripping through my bag. Suddenly this cop goes gray. He sees my number three badge from the D.A.'s office! He's like, 'Ahh! Ahh!' They all go apopletic. I never got stopped again, but I'm careful not to make any weird moves. I might get shot! "It was terrible, though." Cochran pauses. "My kids are crying, asking me, 'Daddy, Daddy, what's wrong?' I didn't want to scare them. I didn't want to tell them it was because of racism. I want to be realistic, but I didn't want to tell them it happened because their daddy was a black guy in a Rolls, so they thought he was a pimp. So I tried to smooth things over. To calm everyone down. As an African-American, you hope and pray that things will be better for your children. And you don't want them to feel hatred." "He was a lot less irritated about it than I was," growls Cochran's friend Sydney Irmus, who met Cochran in the early 1960s, when Irmus was defending comedian Lenny Bruce on obscenity charges - and who later sold Cochran the Rolls-Royce in question. "I thought it was terrible and something should be done," Irmus adds. "But he wanted to forget about it. I don't know if he ever reported it. I think he wanted to let it go, to move on to the next day." "I didn't report it," Cochran shrugs, falling into a certain rehearsed nonchalance. "But everybody was talking about it and my friends were outraged."
"I Was Going For Psychic Damages!"
Those who know Cochran well are not surprised that he seems blase when he talks about the episode. For someone who thrives on trial work, they say, he can be surprisingly nonconfrontational. "You can't bring Johnnie bad news," his father notes. "He just will not hear it. He has always been that way. So much so that his sisters call him Peter Pan." Apparently Cochran does not like to give it, either. "Johnnie does not like to say no, to be the heavy in any way,'' says associate Carl Douglas. "But when it comes to trial," Douglas continues, "it's another matter altogether. He may be disarming. He may appear casual. He may do it with a smile. But he's fierce. Show him up and he'll go for the jugular. And he just loves these police cases. He thrives on them." Cochran's first major matter after returning to private practice set the scenario in motion. In a widely publicized 1981 case, Ron Settles, a California State University football player, was found hanging dead in a jail cell in the Signal Hill police station. Though the police ruled the death a suicide, Cochran's investigation turned up strong evidence that Settles in fact had been killed by a police chokehold. Consequently, the city of Signal Hill settled before trial for $760,000 - then the largest settlement in a jail death case in the state of California. Since that matter he has won some $40-43 million in judgments from various California municipalities in police cases. All of this has made Cochran a very wealthy man. In addition to his house in Los Felas, he owns two condominiums on the beach on the Marina Peninsula (one for his father) and, he estimates, takes home about a million dollars a year from his law practice. "Johnnie's made a lot of money doing a lot of good, and I think that's great," chuckles Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School. "Despite the fact that when he came to talk to my students he convinced them rather quickly that being a civil rights lawyer was the way to go and that they could make a lot of money doing it. And this is after I spent all this time convincing them that being a public defender was God's work! But I'd invite him back." Cochran cautions, however, that "we can't sit around being fat, dumb, and happy." Far from it - his staff is on reflexive red alert whenever a police shooting hits the news. "Johnnie will call in and say, 'Hey, have we heard from so-and-so? I read about this in the paper,' " says his executive assistant, Jan Bowers. "And when we don't get retained on a case that he thinks we should have, he double-checks to make sure that we did not do anything incorrectly, like the people called and we dropped the ball. Then it's like, 'Well, I guess this one was not meant for us to have.' " One case that clearly was meant to be was that of Patricia and Alicia Diaz v. The City of Los Angeles. In 1989 Patty Diaz, then 13 years old, was molested by Stanley Tanabe, an off-duty police officer who had been stalking her for some time. Tanabe - who had gained entrance to Diaz's house under the guise of investigating a crime - had threatened Diaz with a gun and said he would injure her family if she didn't comply with him. "This one was a real breakthrough," Cochran grins. "I was going for a bigger thing, something new with Diaz. This wasn't just a shooting or a chokehold. I was going for psychic damages! "It was outrageous," snorts Cochran. "This Tanabe guy says to her, 'I know where you are, and I'll come get you if you say anything. Scared her to death." What was equally "outrageous," Cochran suggests, is the fact that the LAPD made no attempt to investigate the incident after the Diaz family reported it. "This was a case where you had an absolutely innocent young person violated by the very people who are supposed to protect and serve. It was horrible. It ruined her life. She tried to kill herself three times. Three times! She had these marks on her wrist. She would look in the mirror and see this guy Tanabe's face. She had hallucinations, nightmares. You name it. This poor girl would fall apart every year on the anniversary of the incident. I mean fall apart! "I knew that if we went to trial all of this would come out," Cochran says, jumping up and pacing. "And I also knew that people would be very offended by what had happened to Patty. But I felt that a trial would be very hard on her." The city attorney made an offer to settle for $150,000, according to Cochran. "[They] had this 'Mary M.' case on the books," he recalls. "Mary M. was a lady who was raped by a police officer who had picked her up for drunk driving. And they settled that one for $150,000 in 1991. So they said to me, 'We'll never give you more than Mary M. Never! Your client wasn't even raped!' And the officer was off duty, so we're not even responsible.' " "I said, 'Are you crazy?' " Cochran continues. "My client is a child! This cop may have been off duty but he used the color of his authority to get into the house and molest her. She tried to kill herself! Have you ever heard of psychic damages? You guys are making a big mistake. See you in court!' " Among other things, Cochran forced a police captain involved to admit under cross-examination that the LAPD botched the investigation into the molestation incident after the Diaz family had reported it. "I'm listening to this guy on direct, and I'm thinking, he knows they screwed up," Cochran explains. "And I tell you, he seemed more candid than the normal covering -up cop. So I sensed I could get this guy to tell the truth. So I said to Eric (Ferrer, his associate and co-counsel), 'Watch this. I'm going to get this guy.' I started out nice, then bam. By the end he was saying, 'Mr. Cochran, I have to admit - they screwed up,' " he recalls. But it was Cochran's handling of Diaz herself that may have guaranteed the huge damages in the case. The day before Diaz took the stand, she came to Cochran's office. "Johnnie was sitting in his seat, at the other end of the conference table from Patty," remembers Brian Dunn, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan Law School who works for Cochran (and who was then a summer clerk). "He was very analytical with Patty, taking her through the steps of her testimony," Dunn recalls. "A little detached." By the time Diaz arrived at court the next day, she was shaking with fear. "We took her into the witness room," Dunn says. "And Johnnie just very gently started asking her questions about her life, the things she liked to do. He suddenly turned into Mr. Sensitive. He took a different tack than he had the day before. It was a different Johnnie. "Patty just started talking about taking the bus to her grandmother's every Sunday to make flour tortillas," Dunn continues. "And when Johnnie heard that, he got this little gleam in his eye. He just grinned like a Cheshire cat. I was new at this, and I'm thinking, 'Why is Johnnie getting excited about tortillas?' " "It was all about her family, her life, which was gone, robbed by what that Tanabe did," Cochran blurts, stabbing the air with his pen. "If the jury was going to understand my theory, that because of what happened to her, Patty could no longer enjoy life, I needed to make them understand what her life had been! That she used to love to do things like visit her grandmother and make tortillas. And she couldn't even do that anymore. She used to have this fun! But no more! "So I talked about what she did on Sundays," Cochran says. "The normal family stuff that anybody could relate to. It was wonderful. I mean it wasn't wonderful, it was terrible. But I wanted the jury to understand that she wanted her life back and couldn't get it!" On July 17, 1992, after a six-week trial, a superior court jury awarded Diaz and her mother $9.4 million, the largest award ever handed out against the city of Los Angeles in a police misconduct matter. (The award included $6.1 million compensatory damages against the city and Tanabe, and $3.1 million in punitive damages against Tanabe. Diaz's mother received another $200,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.) "Those numbers were very, very close to the figures Johnnie had asked for in his closing," says Ferrer. "Patty was crying. The jurors were crying. As they walked out, one by one they hugged her." Of his office's decision not to settle the case, chief assistant city attorney James Pearson asserts that hindsight is twenty -twenty. But, he confides, "I think if Johnnie were honest with you, he'd tell you that even he was surprised at the Patty Diaz award. It was very excessive. We felt the jury went way overboard. "How did we react around here?" Pearson asks rhetorically. "Like this." And he drops his jaw. Late this March, Cochran, Pearson and city attorney James Hahn agreed to a post-verdict settlement of about $4.6 million, which the Los Angeles City Council approved on April 12. Victories such as Diaz, however, have been a long time coming, for over the years Cochran has succumbed in his fair share of rounds with the police. In 1975 he and Syd Irmus lost a jury trial on behalf of the parents of Philip Eric Johns, a college student killed by L.A. police who had mistaken him for a suspect in a drug bust. "They had the wrong guy," Cochran screeches. "It was galling," he says of the Johns result, which he counts as one of the gravest disappointments of his career. "We later found out there had been racism on the jury," Cochran says, his voice escalating syllable by syllable. "Some of the jurors were calling the African-American court reporter 'Burrhead.' Can you imagine that? Burrhead. "Boy, would I love to do that case now!" says Cochran, his voice turning into an exclamation point. "It would be big! Bigger than Rodney King!"
"He's The Flow Itself"
During the final negotiations in Diaz, another, far dicier subject arose: a possible settlement of the civil suit that Cochran has filed against the city on behalf of Reginald Denny and three other victims of the 1992 riots in South Central L.A.: Takao Hirata, Fidel Lopez, and Wanda Harris. (Hirata and Lopez were beaten at the intersection of Florence and Normandie; Wanda Harris's 15-year-old son was the first person killed during the conflagration.) "That thing is going to give both Johnnie and me gray hair," says chief assistant city attorney Pearson of the "Denny suit," as it has become known. "And I already have gray hair." These days, the man at the center of that suit is trying to reclaim some semblance of the life he once knew. It was, Reginald Denny suggests, a "simple life," one of driving his truck, hanging out with his friends, and spending time with his daughter, Ashley. "The biggest event in my life before the riots was work and sleep," Denny says. "Some of my friends thought I was boring. But boring was me. Boring was fine. Excitement and uncertainty are not me." As he talks, it becomes clear that Denny is also - with the slow, off-kilter steps of someone arising from a deep sleep - trying to cope with a depression that has enveloped him in recent months. "I've been faking it for the last year and a half," he confesses. "But there are days when I can't handle what has happened." That's why, he says, he's "hiding out" in an industrial complex in the dry-baked foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, about an hour away from Florence and Normandie. The last thing Denny remembers about that intersection is a kaleidoscope of shattered glass. "There were broken bottles and stuff that left a sort of spray pattern on the ground," he recalls. "I can almost see it now. They left an interesting design," glittering, he recalls, like sunlight on water. Denny again uses an image of water when describing Cochran - or "Mr. Cochran," as he insists upon calling him. ("He may be Johnnie to everybody else," Denny stresses, "but he's Mr. Cochran to me.") "I have learned through this that I'm not in control of my destiny. I'm just along for the ride," he says, grasping at clarity. "I can drop an oar in the water every so often but I'm just along for the ride. "But Mr. Cochran," he pauses. "Oh, man. Mr. Cochran is the captain of the ship. Do I step outside the flow and make my own current? Not a chance. But Mr. Cochran, he's the flow itself. He is causing the federal and state court to take a look at this. And believe me, they know who they are doing battle with. They only wish it was Jacoby & Meyers! "I don't know what we would have done if we hadn't found Mr. Cochran," Denny says. "We were lucky. Before this, if I ever needed a lawyer, I would have looked one up in the Yellow Pages. And something tells me Mr. Cochran is not in there under 'A' for attorney," he smiles. In describing the circuitous route that led Denny to Cochran in the summer of 1992, Denny's brother-in-law Rick Montez explains: "We did not know what to do. We were being bombarded from all sides, from all angles," he says. "We needed guidance. And Reg?" Montez muses. "Look, one of the first things Reg wanted to do was balance his checkbook. That's where his head was. No, suing was not on Reggie's mind. That's just not the way he thinks." "My mind was consumed with doctors, nurses, medicine," Denny says of that time, showing a visitor graphic photographs taken of him when he was in a coma. "All I could think of was getting better. Suing is just not a word I ever used," he says. "I had no idea what my options were. I figured they were slim to none." Montez's father-in-law belonged to a Harley-Davidson club with Dominick Rubalcava, a Santa Monica lawyer who has known Cochran for some 15 years. "Reggie's family had kept him away from lawyers for a long, long time before they consulted with me," Rubalcava notes. "I spent a lot of time with Reggie trying to get a feel for his interests, what his physical, emotional, and financial needs were. "Reggie is not a litigious person," Rubalcava says. "Not an aggressive person at all. Not used to putting his own interests first. Given this passivity, I was frankly concerned that this was a guy who was not used to taking control, and somebody could really take advantage of him. But I knew Johnnie could shepherd him without exploiting him. This was critical." On a Saturday morning in July 1992, Rubalcava (who says he did not take the case because he is not a personal injury lawyer) and Cochran drove to the Santa Clarita Valley, where Denny was recuperating with Montez and his family. "We took my car," Rubalcava laughs. "I did not want to show up in a f---ing Rolls! Johnnie is a flashy, splashy guy, and he has earned it all. But I did not want any superfluous influences to get in the way." Cochran says he was intrigued when Rubalcava called him, but unsure of what he could do for Denny. "There is a lot of law on government immunity making it very hard to sue the police for negligence during a riot situation," he explains. "But I was curious," he adds. "That's my nature. And then I go and meet this remarkable individual! One thing that impressed me was he had received all these letters from around the world, like 25,000-30,000, and he wanted to answer them all. And some of them are from, like, the Ku Klux Klan sending him money. And he tells me, 'Mr. Cochran, when I get these letters from these kooks, I send them back.' This is a very big thing with this guy, and it impressed me. "After I met with him I still didn't know what I could do for him," Cochran continues. "I knew I had this problem of a theory. But I knew I wanted to do something. I mean, here is this amazing human being. And I was just smitten with his little girl, Ashley." (The feeling is, apparently, mutual. Of Cochran, 11-year-old Ashley says, "He's cool" - an assessment no doubt underscored by her trip with Cochran to attend Bill Clinton's inauguration.) The Law Offices of Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., are generally bustling on Saturdays, so when Cochran arrived there after seeing Denny, he immediately convened an impromptu meeting. "Johnnie was telling us that Reggie was just this wonderful person, who had been horribly injured," recollects Cochran's associate Ferrer. "His view was that Reggie should be compensated and something like that should never happen again. We have always felt that people in the minority community get disparate treatment by the police. And so to us the riots were just this incredible example of how the police ignore South Central simply because they do not care. "My view," Ferrer continues, "was, 'Look, couldn't a black person bring an action on the theory that they were injured because the police had a discriminatory policy of not protecting South Central? Maybe you can't sue the police on a theory of negligence but can't you sue them for a policy of discrimination?' "But if Reggie couldn't sue because he was white, now that would be unfair," stresses Ferrer. "So we talked about the idea of pursuing this not on negligence but on a theory of violation of civil rights." Ferrer adds: "Johnnie called me later that night and was going, 'Eric! Eric! We've got to do this. We've got to do this.' " Not everyone in Cochran's office was so enthusiastic, however. "I was telling Johnnie, 'I don't know about this,'" concedes Douglas. "I was worried that if our firm did this, the brothers in the community would picket!" ("Carl's more to the left, and he went right into his ethnic screech," laughs Cochran. "But he came around.") Douglas admits, "Though I had gone on the record as being against it, I quickly became intrigued by the absolute irony of the lawsuit. I was fascinated by it. The idea that here's this white guy with an African-American firm suing the city of Los Angeles on behalf of blacks in South Central! I loved it! "And I'll tell you something else," Douglas notes. "Nobody could have talked Johnnie out of it. Nobody."
"How Many Amicus Lawyers Does It Take To Change A Lightbulb?"
"People say I'm screwing the taxpayers of L.A.," says Denny, shaking his head and grabbing a copy of a newspaper cartoon that shows a caricature of him sipping on a straw from a glass representing Los Angeles. "Here, look at that. How do you like that? "But people need to know that 'protect and serve' may mean 'protect and serve' in Beverly Hills and Westwood but not South Central," Denny continues. "And that's not right," he adds. "So Mr. Cochran is giving the city something to chew on." On April 28, 1993, the day before the filing deadline, Cochran lodged a tort claim against the city of Los Angeles. Several months later, he filed a suit in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California under various federal civil rights statutes. The LAPD, Cochran charged, discriminated in its decision to withdraw its forces from the area around Florence and Normandie during the early stages of the riots, while continuing to protect other areas. Because of the lack of police protection that resulted from this racist decision, the suit contends, Denny, Hirata, and Lopez were injured, and Harris's son was killed. "I remember being at a dinner party with Johnnie, and he's telling us about the suit," says Rickey Ivie, name partner of Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt. "We're like, 'Wait a minute, Johnnie. You have a big problem with government immunity.' And then he says, 'This is not about state liability. It is about denial of equal protection.' And he's telling us that he was going to wait until the last minute and file. He said, 'You just watch. Everybody else is going to get kicked out because they're suing on a theory of negligence. But we're going to do it on a different concept and we'll be the only ones left standing! You just watch.' " His prediction proved true, but it was not all smooth going. "The judge was really beating up on Johnnie," says Cochran's associate Brian Dunn of the argument on September 27 before Chief Judge William Matthew Byrne, Jr., on the city's motion to dismiss. "He just kept saying, 'Who is your protected class?' Essentially, he was trying to get Johnnie to explain why Reggie, a white male, was in there." Demurs Cochran: "Yeah, that's true, Judge Byrne was all over me, all over me. We were skating around there and in major, major danger of getting kicked out." "After that hearing I was a wreck," says Dunn, who had been researching the case for several months. "I was freaking out!" So Johnnie calls me into his office and tells me to shut the door. He was like, 'Get a grip. Pull yourself together. Look at you, you're a mess. Your hair's a wreck. You're a mess. You're never going to last in this business if you react this way. You've got to remember one thing. Never let 'em see you sweat.' "He wasn't upset but I was," Dunn chuckles. "Johnnie was like, 'Okay. No problem. We've just got some thinking to do.' And then he starts strategizing right then and there. Saying that our next move was to get support from the NAACP, ACLU, and all those groups. He starts going on about how we're going to pack the courtroom at the next hearing! As we talk, he's conceiving this grand, sweeping plan about how we're going to get all this support, and how great it's going to be! How everybody would be rallying around the cause!" Shortly thereafter, Judge Byrne dismissed the suit without prejudice and Cochran refiled the complaint with additional facts and legal arguments to support the due process and equal protection claims. By the time the city again moved to dismiss, Cochran had enlisted the help of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, the Korean Youth and Community Center, the Korean American Coalition, the Southern California Civil Rights Coalition, and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, which all filed amici briefs. "I'm out there all by myself," Cochran says. "All of a sudden I'm thinking, 'Hey! People are going to want to help me. Let's get on the phone.' " On January 31 Cochran argued the motion again, and shortly thereafter Judge Byrne ruled that the equal protection cause of action could stand, basing his decision in part on a 1989 Sixth Circuit ruling allowing white residents of Canton, Ohio, to claim that police had failed to protect them because they lived in a primarily black area. The hearing was not without a little last-minute drama, though. Cochran arrived over an hour late because his car had broken down at the barber shop, where, as one member of his staff puts it, "he was getting groomed for court." "Nobody can get away with being late to court like Johnnie," notes Dunn, echoing an observation shared by many. "Judges never yell at him for it." Dunn continues: "As Johnnie had planned, the court was packed with lawyers. People were making all these jokes like, 'How many amicus lawyers does it take to change a lightbulb?' And finally, Johnnie breezes in. La de da. "It was funny," Dunn grins. "Around that time, there was a bunch of stuff about Michael Jackson in the news, so when Johnnie finally gets there, Judge Byrne just kind of looked at him for a moment, paused and said something like, 'Mr. Cochran, with all I've read and heard about you lately, I must say one thing. I'm rather surprised that you do not have a driver.' " "Well, he did that day," notes Cochran's assistant Jan Bowers wryly. "Instead of coming to court in his Jaguar, which is the car he had that day, Johnnie arrived in a Honda driven by one of his law clerks."
"There But For The Grace Of God Go I"
Harvard Law professor Ogletree, who has discussed the Denny suit at length with Cochran, echoes the perception of many who see the case as ground-breaking, both legally and symbolically. "Johnnie has raised the consciousness of the community by saying we can fight police oppression and abuse by successfully defending a white person's rights," says Ogletree. "And it's particularly important because here is a black man doing it." For his part, Denny recoils when asked to view himself, his case - and particularly his lawyer - through a racial lens. "Sometimes people ask me what the significance is of my having a black attorney," Denny says, anger seeping through his soft voice. "They ask me what does that symbolize? I want to grab them by the cuff of their neck and get in their face and say, 'It symbolizes a man, Mr. Cochran, who has what he has because of his brains, not because of his color. That's what it symbolizes.' "So much for my being the nicest guy in the world," he smiles a bit slyly, referring to his own pacific image. "It's not like I went through hundreds of resumes looking for a lawyer," Denny continues. "I was going on this immediate feeling I had about Mr. Cochran. Once I met him, that was it. He is very controlled, very confident. He goes through life saying, 'I think I can. I think I can. And I'm usually saying, 'I know I can't.' So when I'm around him it makes me feel good." Another client of Cochran's, with an entirely different set of problems, couldn't agree more. "Before I hired Johnnie, I felt basically helpless about my case," says Raymond Newman, an attorney whom Cochran defended last year against perjury and grand theft claims by the county of Los Angeles that, as court -appointed counsel, he had grossly overbilled the county. "My spirits were lifted just from talking to him," Newman says. "The entire tenor of the case changed once I hired him. It was like all of a sudden I had a chance. And his staff, they are very good. I would walk into the courthouse and people would almost spit on me, but Johnnie's people, they almost conveyed the hope that everything would be okay. They did a great deal for my own self-confidence." Newman's state of mind was understandable. The county had accumulated a wealth of damaging evidence, and his earnings from his court-appointed cases - more than $500,000 a year in 1988 and 1989 - had attracted considerable attention. Newman's billing records showed that he had charged for 15 hours of work every day for two years, including holidays such as New Year's. The records also indicated that Newman had billed for work when he was doing community service after having been arrested for driving under the influence. Inside the Criminal Courts building on Temple Street, the case was viewed as a watershed, the climax of mounting concern over the cost of indigent defense, especially in the death penalty cases that dominated Newman's law practice. (The county has since jettisoned the billing system for court-appointed counsel, replacing it with a new cost-containment, flat fee program for death penalty cases.) "Ray had become a pariah," says one source who works in the criminal courts building. "Everybody blamed him for what had happened to the system. I remember once he came into my office, looked around, and said, 'Is it okay for me to be here? For you to be seen with me?' The D.A. went after Ray with a vengeance." "That case was a dog," says one well-known criminal attorney. "Newman talked to a lot of lawyers, including me, and nobody wanted it. There was tons of evidence against him...Plus Newman was going to be a difficult client. Kind of an arrogant guy, whose basic attitude was, I didn't do a damn thing wrong. So we all kind of went, 'Hmmm,' when Johnnie took the case. "I wonder if Johnnie felt some sort of obligation, sense of responsibility to take on Ray," this source muses, referring to the fact that Newman is black. "A lot of people thought that, but that really wasn't it," Cochran counters. "It really was more that here was this guy, a lawyer in private practice who had to take care of his own business. And my position was these D.A.s, they punch in, they punch out. They don't understand how hard we work, how you can be obsessing about a case every minute of the day! They didn't understand the psychology of this kind of work!" The prosecutors attacking Newman, Cochran says, have "no idea" of the pressures involved in death penalty cases. "I mean these guys, your defendants are going to die, D-I-E if you mess up," he yelps. Deputy district attorney Richard Healey, however, portrayed Newman as a wily man who took advantage of the fact that, thoughout the 1980s, there had been little supervision of the county's billing system. Newman, he argued, had spent a great deal of time on matters unrelated to his cases - vacationing with his family, coaching Little League baseball - all the while billing the county. The prosecution's star witness was Newman's former girlfriend, Traci Ross, who had kept records of trips the two had made, and testified in elaborate detail about how much time the married Newman spent with her during their five-year relationship - time when he supposedly was working on cases. "They would be taking all these romantic vacations and Ray was still billing," says Healey. "She had saved receipts, so she could pin down times and places. When I had her on direct she seemed very detached," without an angry agenda, Healey recalls. "But Johnnie got up and did a very good job of painting her as a woman scorned with a grudge against Ray," Healey concedes. "She had said she would do anything to get Ray, because he wouldn't leave his wife," Cochran says. "And she lied on the stand," Cochran claims. "She said she didn't know he was married. Ha! I brought in somebody to say that they had told her he was married. So that was good. I was able to say, "Hey! Here's a case where they are charging my client with perjury [in his billing records], and their star witness has committed more perjury than anyone else!" (Ross could not be reached for comment.) In addition, Cochran managed to engage the jury's sympathy in his closing argument. Cochran told the story of a man obsessed, who never rested and, even when he was traveling, worked at a relentless pace. "Johnnie went on about how Newman was out there on the lonely fight," Healey recalls. "How you can't really understand what it is like to defend people who are facing the death penalty. Here was this guy who started out picking cotton in Louisiana." "Look," says Cochran, flinging his hands for emphasis. "It was basically all about a hardworking lawyer, a guy who picked himself up from his bootstraps. He did not take a gun and steal money. The judges signed off on his bills. And now they're saying he didn't do the work. Baloney!" Still, even Cochran sensed the case might be a long shot. "When the Newman jury was out, I mentioned to Johnnie that Ray and his family go to my church," says his associate Clara Hill Williams. "He [said], 'You'd better pray for them, baby. Pray for them.' " Her prayers may have been heard. The jury acquitted Newman of one count of perjury and one of grand theft; it hung on the three remaining counts. The case is scheduled for retrial in early May on one grand theft charge. "Having learned my lesson, I dismissed all counts where I needed the girlfriend to testify," notes D.A. Healey. "I remember in one of his more reflective moments Johnnie and I were talking about the Ray Newman case," says one young lawyer who works for Cochran. "And he said, 'You know, you have to watch it. This business is very fast, very pressured. And if you're not careful, you'll fall.' He was very pensive about it. It was kind of like, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "
"I'm Innocent, Stupid"
"The only frustration with Johnnie," Newman suggests, "is that he has a million things going on, and I [found myself] wondering if he has enough time for me. Before trial, I remember talking to one of the lawyers in his office about this and he just kind of nodded and said, 'Don't worry. Once it's your turn, and he puts his feet under the table, things change. He'll be all yours.' " Ike Odoi-Kyene, a model from Ghana whom Cochran successfully defended on murder charges last year, agrees. "It can be hard to get Johnnie on the phone, and before the case started, I am getting very upset. I am paying him all this money," he says. (Cochran charged Odoi-Kyene $25,000 to handle the preliminary hearing and another $150,000 for the three-week trial.) "I'm thinking, 'Where is he?' But I did not understand. When you talk to him, sometimes you think Johnnie is not listening. But he is. And then in trial, he is sitting back, calm. Meanwhile, I'm sitting there shaking, worried about my life. And, oh boy, he is making it seem like being a lawyer is nothing. But trust me," Odoi-Kyene says with a sideward glance. "He saved my ass. "I would very much like to talk to Michael," Odoi-Kyene muses. "I want to tell him everything that Johnnie has done for me." "Michael," of course, is Michael Jackson, who retained Cochran last December to handle the civil case and the criminal investigations in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties stemming from claims that Jackson sexually abused a 13-year-old boy. Several members of Jackson's camp knew Cochran, but in the end one contact proved especially important: Neil Papiano, name partner at L.A.'s Iverson, Yoakum, Papiano & Hatch, who represents Jackson's close confidant Elizabeth Taylor and has worked with Cochran on a number of civic and legal matters. In late November, with abuse allegations flying, Jackson had canceled his tour and traveled to Europe for treatment of an addiction to painkillers. Taylor flew to his side, and her lawyer, Papiano, became an active liaison with the Jackson defense team, then consisting of Bertram Fields, name partner of Greenberg, Glusker, Fields, Claman and Machtinger, and Howard Weitzman of Katten Muchin. Papiano strongly recommended that they hire Cochran, and on December 1 invited him to a lunch with Jackson's advisers at Taylor's house on December 3. "It was incredibly hush-hush," recalls a member of Cochran's staff. "Eloise (Cochran's executive secretary) had to stand by the fax to get directions to Taylor's house to make sure nobody else in the office knew about the meeting or where she lived. You could feel in the air that something big was up." After the lunch, at which he was retained, Cochran immediately headed for the office of his old friend, L.A. district attorney Gil Garcetti, with whom he had serendipitously scheduled a meeting on another case. The subject turned to Jackson, and Cochran asked Garcetti whether he or his counterpart in Santa Barbara, Thomas Sneddon, Jr., had probable cause or a warrant to arrest the singer. When Garcetti said no, Cochran knew he could advise Jackson to return to the country, which is precisely what Cochran did during his first phone conversation with his new client later that night. "My strategy was that Michael Jackson is innocent and he should come back home and address these charges adamantly," explains Cochran. Says Carl Douglas, who is working on the case with Cochran: "We are taking an aggressive plaintiffs lawyer approach to this case. From the beginning, Johnnie's view was crystal clear: 'I'm innocent, stupid!' " (Cochran has taken this stance into his own reception area, where a red, computerized message darting across the wall reads, "God Bless Michael. Michael. Michael Jackson.") Once Jackson returned, Cochran suggested that he argue his case on the airwaves, which the singer did on December 22, several days after the Santa Barbara and Los Angeles police departments conducted a body search of Jackson and photographed his genitalia. In a four-minute speech, broadcast live on Cable News Network, Court TV, and other channels from Jackson's Neverland Ranch, Jackson - who appeared on the verge of tears - pleaded: "Don't treat me like a criminal, because I am innocent!" He then said of the body search, "It was the most humiliating ordeal of my life, one that no person should have to suffer. . . . It was a nightmare, a horrifying nightmare, but if this is what I have to endure to prove my innocence, so be it." "That speech was Johnnie's idea," says Douglas, who wrote the first draft along with Karen Randell, one of Weitzman's partners. "We showed a draft to Johnnie and some other people and then Michael did some stuff to it. But it was Johnnie's idea. This case was meant for Johnnie. He can talk to Gil Garcetti. He can talk to Larry Feldman." Feldman represents Jackson's 13-year-old accuser in a civil lawsuit filed in mid-September of last year. With Jackson scheduled to give a deposition at the end of January, the defense team felt pressure to resolve the case quickly, so, at the very least, the criminal proceedings would not benefit from discovery in the civil matter.
By early January, Cochran and Feldman had started talking. Like Garcetti, Feldman, name partner of Santa Monica's Fogel, Feldman, Ostrov, Ringler &Klevens, has known Cochran for nearly 20 years. "A lot of people around here were wondering when Jackson would get it together and hire Johnnie," says one well -known civil defense lawyer. "And when I was talking to Larry right after Johnnie came on the case, he said to me, 'Michael Jackson is getting serious. They've got Johnnie Cochran.' " Says Feldman: "It's true that I never spoke to anyone on their side until he came on board. It had been a bloody war every single day. But Johnnie and I had a mutual respect, and that certainly helped us in getting a resolution." Cochran agrees that his arrival on the case "opened the lines of communication. Feldman and I knew each other as plaintiffs lawyers. We understood each other's language, and that was key," he says. "We were seeing each other every day in depositions, and one day we got to talking. From his standpoint he was always talking about the fact that his client wanted to heal, saying that 'my kid wants to get on with his life. . . .' "And from our standpoint," Cochran continues, "Michael's deposition was going to be taken and that was going to be a real tough thing for him. This is a man who is very private. Michael is very good when he testifies. He has never lost one case when he has testified. He is that good and that believable, but he did not want to give a deposition. . . . And I think the other side wanted to have this thing over, too. It had gotten out of control, the feeding frenzy of the press and all of that. It had gotten bigger than all of us. And we figured that if we settled it, it will get off the front pages. I felt it was my charge to make this go away." That he and Weitzman did, this past January, when a settlement was reached in the civil case. Although Feldman, Cochran, and Weitzman decline to discuss the details, it is widely assumed - and some say correctly so - that implicit in the deal was that the boy would not testify against Jackson in a criminal trial. In addition, according to Cochran, the plaintiff and his family acknowledged that Jackson would continue to maintain his innocence, while the Jackson camp would stop accusing the plaintiff's family of having attempted to extort money from Jackson. None of the lawyers involved would specify the dollar amount of the settlement, but it appears to be somewhere in the range of $13-16 million. (Cochran would not confirm this estimate.)
"Hey, Man. Good Luck With Michael!"
In mid-February, Cochran was having lunch with a friend at the Century Towers Restaurant in Century City, when the maitre d' summoned him to the telephone. "Johnnie came back with this funny expression on his face," this lawyer says. "He then proceeded to tell me that Gil Garcetti tracked him down to tell him that he was about to announce his intention to appeal the California statute" that says victims of sexual abuse cannot be forced to testify in criminal investigations - a move that obviously could hurt Michael Jackson's case. Of the call, Cochran laughs, "Gil used to work for me. We have a rapport. We can talk. He tells me, 'Johnnie, I just want you to know that I'm having a press conference at two o'clock to announce this.' I'm like, 'Gee, Gil. It's one o'clock now...' "But we're friends," Cochran continues. "When he was running for D.A. (in 1993) I took him around to some of the black clergy." (Reverend Dr. William Epps, the pastor of the Second Baptist Church, where Cochran attends mass every Sunday, notes: "Johnnie said Garcetti was the man to support for D.A., so I did.") Turning those ties to his client's advantage, Cochran helped arrange for prominent black clergy and other members of the community to hold a press conference at Epps's church on February 17, criticizing what they perceived as prosecutorial persecution of Jackson. Several weeks later, Garcetti met with some of the same group to discuss their complaints. "We talked about the way his office has handled the case," explains Epps. "We asked why it was taking so long. Why hadn't they filed any charges if they have anything? Why now to appeal the statute? It just looks kind of racist to us. That kind of thing. We wanted him to understand that the African-American community has mobilized behind Michael. Johnnie put that in motion." (Cochran also arranged for Jackson to be a surprise presenter at the NAACP Image Awards in February.) According to five sources in a position to know, since coming on board in December Cochran has worked closely with Weitzman but has played an increasingly major role. "Michael has told me, on a number of occasions, how impressed he is with Johnnie Cochran. He has told me so more than once," says Stephen Chabre, president and CEO of MJJ Enterprises, which manages Jackson's various businesses. For his part, Weitzman stresses that he and Cochran work closely and share the load equally. "I am doing all the civil work, all the paperwork. . . . I talk to Johnnie almost every day. [Neither] would I say I am the lead counsel. That is not the way it works. I have no idea how the client looks at it." There is little doubt, though, that "this Michael thing has put [Cochran] in another league," observes Ronald Sunderland, the executive vice-president of business affairs and contracts for Capital Cities/ABC Entertainment, who is perhaps Cochran's closest friend. "Johnnie has had plenty of high-profile stuff, but this is something else altogether. I was talking to him just the other day and he was kind of laughing, saying, 'Everybody wants me at their table, Ron. Everybody wants me at their table.' We were at the Super Bowl, and people were coming up to him all the time congratulating him about Michael." "Denny is legally a much more important case," says Sunderland, who is an attorney. "But all this attention? This is what Michael has done for him." Not long ago, Carl Douglas and Cochran were stuck at a light in downtown L.A., talking about their day in court on another matter when, Douglas recalls, they heard noises from a car in the next lane. "These African-American women in the next car rolled down their window and said something like, 'Go, Johnnie, go! Good luck, Johnnie! You're doing a great job with Michael.' " But perhaps Cochran's biggest and least-known fan is the persistent panhandler outside superior court. "Every day we go through this," laughs Douglas. "The guy comes up, tells Johnnie he's the greatest, and asks him for his card and some money." And as he wanders off, shaking his styrofoam cup, the panhandler shouts, "Hey, man. Good luck. Good luck with Michael!"
Copyright 1994, The American Lawyer