As a reluctant spectator of the year-and-a-half-long O.J. Simpson murder trial, one of the most difficult tasks for me was to keep my personal distress over this particularly disturbing case separate from my regard for the many fine African-American attorneys involved on both sides of the bar.
Working as I do on the law school campus of a predominantly Black university, I realized long ago that the most notable person on the Simpson “dream team,” the ever-dapper Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., was viewed by many of the aspiring young lawyers-to-be on my campus as a legend and a hero. To them, Cochran, who took up the reins of this controversial trial five months into its sixteen-month course, is the dashing brown David, sassing back to the bludgeon-wielding white Goliath of the police state.
He is the Armani-wearing African-American equivalent of Clarence Darrow: the man who dared beat the U.S. criminal justice system at its own game in its Golden State, and who, throughout his career, has defied those who blithely conclude that for Black folks and other people of color “justice” means “just us” in the nation’s jails.
At the outset, I feared that Cochran had traded his birthright for a mess of pottage in accepting the Simpson case. Yet, I was there that day in October 1995 in the campus’s moot court room, stunned and taken aback as a crowd of budding Black attorneys rose in one jubilant body when the jury handed down their verdict: “not guilty.” It quickly became evident, however, that the sounds and tears of joy were as much for Cochran’s brilliant arguments as for anything else. And soon thereafter, I too joined those who came to admit that, whether justice was served that day or not, Johnnie L. Cochran had forged an inimitable defense for his client.
Journey to Justice, one of the more compelling volumes to waft ashore in the backwash of the Simpson affair, presents a similarly successful vindication of Cochran, who took quite a few hits himself — along with his profession — in that trial. In this highly readable and engaging autobiography, Cochran weaves a plausible, if not unabashedly self-serving and purposely inspirational tale of his lifelong love affair with the law. It is a tale that, if approached with the same open mind expected of jurors, squarely positions Cochran as one of the most outstanding trial lawyers of today.
In true advocate’s style, Cochran presents himself as he would a well-paying client in dire straits. As if beseeching a jury, he (with the assistance of L.A. Times reporter-collaborator Tim Rutten) notes that his client came (as all innocent clients do) from humble beginnings: an idyllic, loving family, replete with an aspiring and erudite patriarch, a matriarch who was a paragon of virtue, an active, ever-present religiosity, and a wholesome work ethic. As if fighting to regain his credibility (or to distance himself from his celebrity clients?) we glimpse an attorney’s-eye view of Cochran the man: the suave, street-smart Californian whose teenage goal was simply to labor in the righteous vineyards of the law.
Likening himself to the ebullient yet beleaguered Darrow, the effective and steadfast Thurgood Marshall, and other notable trial lawyers of various days, Cochran paints a picture of himself as a willing servant of the people — albeit an often highly compensated one — and a bonafide member of the “Talented Tenth” of Black high-achievers.
As well, he shows himself to be one who has reamed how to meld — without compromising his “soul” — into the distinctively different yet inextricably intertwined worlds of Black and white — and to be comfortable, successful, and outspoken in both.
Thus, if Cochran buys into the David versus Goliath scenario in these memoirs it should come as no surprise. If more than once this story takes on a pharisaical tone (indeed, most of the title chapters make references to Scripture), then so much the better. He’s simply providing himself with the best possible defense: a chance to present his side of the story. And so Cochran does, in convincing fashion, presenting himself as more than the sum of the media images that all but buried him as the lead attorney in the most sensationalized, racialized trial of the 20th century. For, as Cochran contends, echoing Winston Churchill, “It is on the whole that such things must be judged.”
Thus, this book serves a larger purpose. Most importantly, it allows Cochran a broad platform from which to sound off on things that have long troubled him about the American, and specifically the Los Angeles, criminal justice system and its policing arm.
In Chapter Four (“A Soul Divided”), he intertwines his own story with a history of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Enumerating hits list of the LAPD’s “seven deadly sins” (“sloth, carelessness, incompetence, dishonesty, bias, and ambition,” with the seventh being the unplanned interaction, of the preceding), Cochran makes a strong case for his conviction that unchecked police misconduct is woven into the very fabric of civic life in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
He takes a panoramic swing at L.A.’s finest from the turn of the century to the present, asserting that in their efforts to create a “police culture” — first by oppressing unionists and later by “playing the race card” and oppressing and containing Los Angelenos of color — the city fathers were co-conspirators with the gendarmes.
The majority of this hook’s pages are devoted not to the Simpson trial but to Cochran’s recollections of his efforts to gain justice and remuneration for impugned citizens of color. As an “insider” (deputy city attorney from 1963 to 1965 and assistant district attorney from 1978 to 1980) and in his private practice, Cochran paints himself as having worked like an “unquiet spirit” to get compensation for minorities injured at the hands of overzealous LAPD officers. He counts as one of his early victories the elimination of the notoriously deadly carotid choke hold from the list of acceptable” police practices. He relates the cases of his more notable pre-Simpson clients: Black Los Angelenos Leonard Deadwyler and Ronald Settles, who were deemed guilty at the street-cop level by virtue of their race and class alone.
He also writes of his more well-known clients: singer Michael Jackson, whom he defended against child molestation charges just prior to taking the Simpson case; and Reginald Denny, the white truck driver beaten by a throng of non-white rioters in the 1994 civil disturbances following the videotaped beating of Rodney King and the subsequent acquittal of his LAPD assaulters.
Cochran also takes this opportunity to wax at length on his personal legal philosophy and his commentary is both enlightening and prescriptive. For example, he offers such pithy statements as, “Honest lawyers will tell you that they live in terror of innocent clients” (p. 128). Later (in chapter twelve, “By Their Fruits Shall Ye Know Them”), he lays out the foundations of his practice, pondering the role of the criminal advocate as smoothly and succinctly as he would a closing argument.
And present closing arguments he does. Journey to Justice contains the entire text of Cochran’s Simpson trial conclusions as well as a play-by-play of the case. In his disclosures, he explains that he and his team hedged their bets on the lack of culpability of the state’s key witness, Detective Mark Fuhrman — “an active, vocal, hate-filled bigot,” according to Cochran, whose “violent, even murderous impulses were, by his own account, barely under control” (p. 275).
Instructively, Cochran reveals that from the outset, he was well aware that the disgrace and dismissal of Fuhrman’s testimony would resonate in the hearts and minds of the Simpson jury like nothing else. Thus he shows how his defense ploys were shaped and attuned to the jurors’ world-view as deftly as any politician’s promise, and presents himself as the best, and probably the only, lawyer capable of claiming victory for his client.
For those who have any doubts that it was Johnnie Cochran’s legal acumen and genius that were the deciding factors in this case, or who believe that “whiter” juries somehow dispense “better” verdicts, Cochran offers the following admonition as he winds down this defense of himself: “To watch an African American advocate participate not only as an equal but also as a victor in (the legal) process is a profoundly disturbing experience for some people. To them, it is hard to know what to say except: Get over it.” (p. 368)
In Journey to Justice, readers can almost feel what it might have been Like standing in the courtroom with Cochran during some of his tensest, most dramatic moments, working late into the night on a particularly troubling case, “moving on up” as his practice begins to grow and thrive, and grieving with him at his beloved mother’s deathbed. What they will not get much of, however, are insights into Cochran’s personal life that do not appear sanitized or sentimentalized.
This rags-to-riches story seems almost too pastoral, like a West Coast version of Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored or an ebonized The Golden Boy. Cochran’s experiences growing up in James Crow, Esq., California; his estranged relationship with his first wife; his affair with the white woman who bore his son; his interactions with the other major players on the Simpson case (particularly “dream team” member Bob Shapiro and prosecutors Chris Darden and Marcia Clark): all of these aspects will appear just a bit too squeaky clean for most readers, or they are glossed over like so much tangential (possibly damaging) detail.
On several key scores, Cochran “pleads the Fifth,” leading less-than-sympathetic readers to, at best, presume his complicity rather than innocence, or at worst, condemn his views as sanctimonious, prideful deceit. Although the book ends with Cochran’s responses to some of the most frequently asked questions raised during anti after the Simpson trial, questions remain.
First, I wish Cochran had addressed the contradictions raised by his team’s negation of the sophisticated DNA testing used during the trial. There are presently any number of locked-up African Americans who could plausibly be freed from trumped-up charges by just such technology. Will the Simpson defense’s challenges of this form of evidence stifle that trend?
Second, while Cochran does an excellent job of contextualizing the toxic, inflammable legal atmosphere in California, I wish he had discussed the influence of the L.A. riots on the Simpson outcome. Given yet another unpopular verdict against a person of color, the thought of Los Angeles fuming into another fiery battleground of multiethnic conflict must surely have weighed heavily upon both the defense’s and the prosecution’s approaches as well as the jurors’ decisions. Discussion of this issue might have been intriguing.
Far from being a “swan song,” Journey to Justice suggests that America can probably expect much, much more from this talented legal expert. Whether Cochran has cast his pearls before swine, sold his soul for thirty pieces of silver, or held on, as he concludes, to “God’s Unchanging Hands,” the final judgment will not be left to readers or to courts or to the media, but to a Higher Authority. In the meantime, letting him have his say has yielded an intriguing, inspiring behind-the-scenes view of what is often an ugly, elusive, and puzzling quest: the journey to justice.
Kamili Anderson, a former staff writer for Black Issues In Higher Education, is presently Associate Editor of the Journal of Negro Education and co-editor, with Faustine C. Jones-Wilson et al., of the recently published Encyclopedia of African-American Education (Greenwood Press, 7996).
Black Issues In Higher Education Top Ten Books Weeks Last On Campus On List Position 1. FAITH IN THE VALLEY: LESSONS FOR 4 3 WOMEN ON THE JOURNEY TO PEACE Iyanla VanZant - Fireside/Simon & Schuster, $10 2. INVISIBLE LIFE 4 1 E. Lynn Harris - Anchor, $9.95 3. SISTERS AND LOVERS 4 2 Connie Briscoe - Ivy/One World, $8.99 4. ACTS OF FAITH: DAILY MEDITATIONS 2 -- FOR PEOPLE OF COLOR Iyanla VanZant - Fireside/Simon & Schuster, $9 5. AND THIS TOO SHALL PASS 21 5 E. Lynn Harris - Doubleday, $23.95 6. SOUL VIBRATIONS 6 4 George Davis and Gilda Matthews - Quill/William Morrow, $10 7. WHEN DEATH COMES STEALING 34 7 Valerie Wilson Wesley - Putnam & Sons, $5.99 8. AIN'T GONNA BE THE SAME FOOL TWICE 4 8 April Sinclair - Hyperion $19.95 9. BLACK SUN SIGNS: AFRICAN AMERICAN 4 6 GUIDE TO THE ZODIAC Thelma Balfour - Fireside/Simon & Schuster, $11 10. COFFEE WILL MAKE YOU BLACK 4 9 April Sinclair - Avon, $10
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