Thursday, April 7, 2005
More Than 4,000 Attend Service for Johnnie Cochran
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
A star-studded crowd of more than 4,000 gathered at a South-Central Los Angeles church yesterday to mourn and honor celebrated Los Angeles civil rights and criminal defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who died March 29 at age 67 after a battle with brain cancer.
The huge West Angeles Cathedral on Crenshaw Boulevard, which officials said seats 5,000, was already about one-third filled an hour before the funeral service was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m.
About a dozen elected officials and more than 50 lawyers from The Cochran Firm eventually joined the crowd, as did some 20 ministers, dozens of former clients, and about 40 members of Kappa Alpha Psi, the black fraternity of which Cochran was a member as a UCLA undergraduate.
Former clients Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson attended and were introduced, though neither spoke. But those remembering Cochran at the nearly four-hour public ceremony, which was followed by a private interment, included Black Panthers leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, whom Cochran defended unsuccessfully against a murder charge in 1972 but whose 1997 release he helped to win, and rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, whom he successfully defended on gun charges.
Also lauding Cochran for a career spent representing minorities and the downtrodden were Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., television personality Star Jones Reynolds, and the nation’s two best-known black politician-preachers, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
Cochran’s two daughters, his son, and his brother-in-law also spoke, and Stevie Wonder sang.
Hahn, who recalled visiting Israel with Cochran and joining him in being immersed in the Jordan River, said Cochran “didn’t just love justice or admire justice, he did justice.”
Rangel spoke about Cochran’s work in recent years as chairman of the federal Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, an economic redevelopment effort centered on Harlem and the surrounding communities, and Los Angeles civil rights lawyer Connie Rice said that while Cochran “heard the siren song of celebrity” he also “ran like the wind with the baton of Thurgood Marshall.”
Cochran often referred to Marshall as his hero and role model, and said he was inspired to pursue a career in law by reading as a teenager about the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a case in which Marshall, later a Supreme Court justice, represented the plaintiffs challenging school segregation.
Sharpton also cited Marshall in his remarks, saying Cochran “was to this era what Thurgood Marshall was to the era before him,” while Jackson imagined the flamboyant lawyer in the afterlife taking up the late Pope John Paul II’s claim to sit nearest to God of all the deceased pontiffs.
Cochran, Jackson speculated, would support that claim based on the pope’s advocacy on behalf of former South African President Nelson Mandela during Mandela’s imprisonment by that nation’s apartheid regime, and would argue to God that because Cochran “helped free Mandela, he’s your fella.”
Several other speakers also referred, either obliquely or directly, to Cochran’s famous line, delivered at the Simpson murder trial, that if the alleged murder glove “does not fit, you must acquit.” The quote was also reproduced on T-shirts being sold outside the church.
Attorneys Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, who joined Cochran in defending Simpson, recalled their subsequent partnership with him at Cochran, Neufeld and Scheck, a firm dedicated to police misconduct and wrongful conviction cases which the three felt could have an impact on the justice system.
“He taught us the importance of doing well by doing good,” Neufeld said. Scheck added that Cochran was “in the tradition of Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Darrow.”
Jackson roused the crowd by telling it that Cochran “slew Goliaths over and over again” and “freed blacks from fearing to trust black lawyers.” Cochran’s image in the minds of many replaced the “Hollywood” image of black lawyers as fast-talking, pompous, incompetent bumblers which, Jackson said, was associated with the character A. J. Calhoun, played by actor Johnnie Lee on the 1950s television comedy “Amos ’n Andy.”
Combs, who also markets a line of clothing aimed at the hip-hop generation, said he admired Cochran’s walk more than any other element of his celebrated style.
“When Johnnie walked, it was like the theme from ëShaft’ was playing in the background,” the rapper declared.
Attorney Eric Ferrer, a partner with The Cochran Firm, was one of several lawyers who recalled Cochran as a mentor. Ferrer cited their 21 years of practice together and described what he said was the litigator’s last case, a suit on behalf of a girl injured in a New Orleans streetcar accident for whom the firm won a jury award in September of 2003.
“The glow of his star—his optimism and positivity—entered my heart,” Ferrer said, adding:
“Johnnie was my general of justice and I was a proud soldier in his army.”
Cochran was born in Louisiana but moved with his family to California while still a small child. After graduating from UCLA, he earned his law degree at Loyola Law School and became the first black law clerk hired by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
He served as a city prosecutor before establishing his own firm, and later became the county’s first black assistant district attorney—the No. 3 county prosecutor—under John Van de Kamp.
The Cochran Firm now has more than 300 lawyers with offices in 15 states and 20 cities.
Cochran is survived by his wife, Sylvia Dale Mason Cochran; his father, Johnnie L. Cochran Sr.; his daughters, Melodie T. Cochran and Tiffany K. Cochran Edwards; his son, Jonathan E. Cochran; and his sisters, Pearl Cochran-Baker and Martha Cochran Sherrard.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company