Johnnie Come Lately

The Vice-President, in one of his final acts in office, has just finished addressing the newly elected members of the Congressional Black Caucus and their guests, on the occasion of their swearing-in to the 107th Congress. Someone in the audience shouts, “Gore in four!” and the 38 congressmen seated onstage at the Library of Congress auditorium rise to applaud the vanquished candidate one last time. Al Gore smiles, ruefully shakes his head, then proceeds to shake hands onstage with each of the black House members.

Meanwhile, the event’s master of ceremonies, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., has retaken the podium, anticipating his turn for a photo op with the vice-president. When Gore heads for the exit, pointedly bypassing the superstar lawyer, Cochran grabs the microphone at his disposal. “Hello, Mr. Vice-President,” he booms in his exaggerated baritone, and he expectantly thrusts out his hand. Gore can’t avoid it. He brushes palms – so fleetingly that, if he’s lucky, the Washington Post photographer might miss the moment – and swans out the side door. The crowd giggles nervously, but Cochran is – as always – impervious to the slight, his beaming smile intact.

He hasn’t started his sermon yet, but from the altar of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the Reverend Calvin Butts has already acknowledged the presence of both the Lord and the esteemed Johnnie Cochran, Esq. – the latter seated second row center. Ever since Cochran popped up in New York four years ago, he has attended Abyssinian from time to time, and Butts enjoys bantering with his celebrity parishioner from the pulpit on Sundays when the lawyer joins the flock. When the keyboardist kicks in at the grand piano ten feet away, Cochran, sitting beside his wife, Dale, sings along gustily to his favorite hymn.

God has smiled on me, He has set me free. God has smiled on me, He’s been goo-oood to me.

To hear him tell it, God has almost always smiled on Johnnie Cochran. Although born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Cochran lived in California from the age of 6, and attended the same L.A. high school as Dustin Hoffman. As with many native So Cal-ians, something in the obstinate good weather has varnished him with an impermeable, slightly corny cheer. The button on his lapel reads expect a miracle.

Some believe he may play the race card in the Combs case. But many lawyers doubt a “Poor Puffy” defense would work.

For a sunny California guy like Cochran, it’s been hard to be hated. Especially by white folks, when he’s made a point of operating smoothly in the white world, not going the Panther route like his client Geronimo Pratt, jailed for 27 years on evidence the FBI concocted because it didn’t like his politics. Work with the system was always his motto. That’s why it doesn’t sit right with him to be seen as a divisive figure. The man who single-handedly picked the scab of national race relations is a master of understatement when necessary. “I’m sure there was lots of anger at me at the time. But it’s changed. Even the harshest people will say, ‘You did your job.’ I refuse to be defined by people out there. That’s why I moved to New York. Because there are other things happening.”

These days, Cochran lives with his second wife in a modern 57th Street high-rise, and works out of a lower Broadway office in a formerly all-white law firm that now bears his name alone: the Cochran Firm. At 63, Johnnie Cochran is being reborn as a New Yorker. The city’s pace is more in tune with his biorhythms than L.A.’s anyway. As Peter Neufeld, Cochran’s Dream Team cohort, put it, “He’s got the speed gene.”

Cochran’s life can be neatly divided into Before Simpson and After Simpson. In the former period, Cochran grew up near the Pacific Ocean (but never surfed), went to law school, and then spent decades facing down the LAPD in brutality cases before such cases were common – and when $25,000 was deemed a huge award. Cochran built up a solid reputation in L.A.’s black community as the man to see if the cops abused you, and his fame grew to the point that even Michael Jackson called him when he got into a little trouble with an underage playmate. Also in the years B.S., he married, fathered three children, divorced, endured a palimony suit, and remarried.

A.S., Cochran has emerged as the nation’s preeminent black lawyer, a global celebrity, larger than himself. Felonious rappers, violence-prone athletes, African potentates, black businessmen, average Joes with slip-and-falls and contract disputes – and increasing numbers of white people – all want Johnnie’s card. He has seven offices around the country, including one in New York, where he joined an established plaintiff firm composed of a group of Jewish guys from Brooklyn whose names are no longer on the letterhead. And that’s okay, because they have never been so busy or so rich. The firm has an 800 number and 60 attorneys. It receives thousands of calls each week from aggrieved citizens, and sifts through them to pick out the winning cases.

Cochran had spent little time in the city before 1997, when Steve Brill offered him his own show on Court TV, an invitation that required Cochran to spend five days each week in the network’s Third Avenue studio. Brill remembers having to furiously lobby the recalcitrant Cochran to make the move. “He was worried that he didn’t know anyone in town,” Brill says. Eventually Cochran caved. Brill’s wife, Cindy, introduced him to a broker who found him a $750,000 condo in a building next to Carnegie Hall. Pairing Cochran with a former Atlanta prosecutor named Nancy Grace, the show got respectable ratings but very mixed reviews. His social life doesn’t seem to have suffered.

His firm’s Christmas party in December was a social coronation of sorts. The party at the Essex House attracted 2,000 people, a cross section of New York society, entertainment, and sports figures, including Sean “Puffy” Combs, Michael Jackson, George Pataki, Roy Black, Bill Bratton, Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, and Mark Green. Brill says he turned to another friend on his way out and remarked on Cochran’s rapid adjustment: “I guess Johnnie knows people now.”

To help with the transition, Cochran hired a New York driver-bodyguard with a cabbie’s knowledge of the city’s back streets, a taciturn six-and-a-half-footer named Ernest. With Ernest behind the wheel of his silver Chrysler, Cochran rides from speaking engagement to settlement conference to airport reception and back again, always attracting a crowd. Something about his brand of celebrity apparently makes him more approachable for New Yorkers than, say, Gwyneth Paltrow or Jerry Seinfeld. Johnnie rather likes it.

His favorite New York place is Trattoria dell’Arte – “uptown in my neighborhood” – where he eats several times a week. For business meetings with Dream Team colleagues Barry Scheck and Neufeld, it’s always Nobu. With his New York pals Bill Cosby and businessman Earl Graves (with whom he boats in the Hamptons and skis in Aspen), it’s the “21” Club, or City Hall near his office. His days and nights are packed with grip-and-grin appearances and speaking engagements and lunches and dinners, where invariably he is asked for his autograph. “At top restaurants, people stand on line,” says Graves. “White people! People who are supposed to be angry with him about O. J. Simpson. When we go out, it takes him ten minutes to get to the booth to eat because of all the autographs.”

Cochran is big, a bigger celebrity even than the man he says is going to be his last criminal-defense client, rapper Puffy Combs. Combs goes on trial this week on gun and bribery charges stemming from a shooting incident at a club in late 1999 that involved Combs’s posse and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Jennifer Lopez (the only member of the group who wasn’t charged). To defend Combs, Cochran signed up a heavyweight local lawyer, Ben Brafman, who is expected to present the opening argument. Their strategy in the Combs case is a modified version of his O.J. defense: Puffy’s a celebrity, and the D.A. is out to get him for it. “To the D.A., this is major!” Cochran says. “The D.A.’s office is treating this like it’s the most heinous offense of the year 2000!”

Cochran claims he’s confident that the beleaguered rapper will be acquitted, although he appears to be eager to share the glory (or the blame) with Brafman. “We will both do the jury selection, and the closing we’ll do together,” he says. Once the Combs case is over, Cochran says, he’s done with criminal law. He says he wouldn’t even take O.J. if he happened along today.

Not that he admits even the slightest regret about defending a man generally believed (by whites, anyway) to have gotten away with double murder. “The main reason why I think he didn’t do it? Look, he was makin’ a million dollars a year, he had the world by the tail, why would he ruin his life?” Pause. “But then, that’s thinking rationally.”

He does disapprove, however, of the way his former client has conducted himself since his bombshell acquittal. Cochran doesn’t deny press reports that he told O.J. to start dating black women when he got out of prison, notwithstanding the fact that his own secret affair with a white woman made headlines when it was revealed during Simpson’s trial. “I told him you better know who was lookin’ after you on that jury,” he says. “It’s middle-aged black women. And my advice was, you have to give back. It’s one thing to be a great athlete and do all these things, but don’t you have to have a social consciousness?”

When church is over, Cochran rises – a shortish, solidly built man in a bespoke suit and shirt with monogrammed cuffs and little clock cuff links that wink out as he reaches to shake hand after hand. He’s mobbed as usual. He and Dale get separated, reconverge, get separated again in the surging crowd. He peels endless business cards from his small leather clutch and hands them to all who ask.

A man in a business suit approaches to say he’s unhappy about a matter the Cochran Firm is handling for him. “It’s just draggin’ on and on,” he complains. Cochran smiles genially and promises to look into it. A little old lady in a fur hat interrupts, extending her quaking hand. Cochran gives her his full attention, brimming with good cheer. “I saw you on TV,” she coos. “God bless you and your family.” In the back of the crowd, another elderly lady futilely tries to get his attention. She clutches a reporter. “Tell Johnnie Cochran to come to Sunnyside Heights. We need him. The police aren’t doin’ their job!”

“They find us. We get a lot of calls.” Cochran is sitting at his desk in the Woolworth Building, explaining how business works these days. There are pictures of Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby mounted behind his head; another photo shows him shaking hands with Bill Clinton. African objets cram the walls and shelves. Cochran talks at a rat-a-tat-tat pace, his cadence and slang a combination of Valley Girl, old-time religion, and crisp legalese.

He has a motto he uses on reporters in the seven cities – Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and three locales in Alabama – where he’s opened offices, a motto worthy of his friend Jesse Jackson: “Not only do we represent the O.J.’s and the M.J.’s, but also the No-J.’s! We represent them as vigorously as anybody else.”

He says his practice is for the little guy. That’s why his firm has a toll-free line, 800-lawyer-1. For the little injured guy, not the little felon. If you’re in jail, he doesn’t want to hear from you; these days, he’s interested in pursuing only civil cases. If you have a good case, he – or, more likely, another of the 60 lawyers at the Cochran Firm – will gladly represent you.

In New York, the Cochran Firm was formed as a result of a merger last year between Johnnie Cochran and the former Schneider, Kleinick, Weitz, Damashek & Shoot. Managing partner Phil Damashek met Cochran when they were both representing injured parties in the same accident. They ran into each other again at the first Lenox Lewis-Evander Holyfield fight at Madison Square Garden, and agreed to talk about joining forces. By last January, the Cochran Firm was in business.

Damashek says he and his partners had no problem dropping their names from the top of the letterhead. “He’s probably the most famous lawyer in the history of the world,” says Damashek. The bottom line is that “he’s a magnet for new business. And Cochran, Schneider, Kleinick, Weitz, Damashek & Shoot is too much even for me.”

Along with his celebrity, Cochran brings to New York three decades of experience suing the LAPD. And he’s putting it to use, filing civil cases against the cops in all the big-name brutality cases here. He’s got Abner Louima, on whose behalf he’s suing not just the cops and the city but the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “We are not just talking dollars; we’re talking equitable relief – change!” he says. He wants the PBA to agree to abandon the controversial so-called 48-hour rule, which allows cops not to be questioned for two days after an incident. Cochran also had the Amadou Diallo civil case until he was unceremoniously fired; he still represents other victims of police shootings, known and unknown, including the family of Patrick Dorismond, Dante Johnson, Dukens Kernisant, and the four teenagers wounded by police gunfire who were later dubbed the New Jersey Four. Suing the cops is what he built his legal reputation on, and he arrived here at an opportune moment: Last year, the city’s reported payouts for police-brutality cases nearly doubled, with lawyers taking a handsome portion of the proceeds.

There is a larger community of activists who stand up for victims of cop brutality in New York, meaning more camaraderie but also more competition for Johnnie.

“In L.A., I was the voice in the wilderness,” he says. “I’d say, ‘These guys are framing people,’ and they’d say, ‘How un-American of you.’ The LAPD never saw a shooting they didn’t think was good. Here you get a few indictments. If Louima happened in L.A., they would have talked about it for a while and the D.A.’s office would have investigated and that would have been it. I’ve seen many more officers indicted here than I ever did there.”

Its a little-known fact that Cochran’s own son is a California Highway Patrol officer and his brother-in-law a county sheriff, which he says often makes for “interesting dinner-table conversations about what police should do. My son says, ‘If somebody has a gun, what do you expect me to do?’ And I think, God, I don’t want him in harm’s way. Throughout all my cases, I’m always aware of the fact that my own son is a cop.”

In addition to his high-profile police cases on the East Coast, Cochran has a hand in scores of civil cases around the country. He’s represented dozens of sports figures in contract and criminal cases – including Latrell Sprewell when he was booted from the Golden State Warriors after choking his coach. He’s involved in race-discrimination cases against a shipbuilder in Pascagoula and against the Lockheed Corporation in Atlanta. He just won a suit against Disney on behalf of two white clients who claimed that the company stole their idea for a sports complex. (Cochran won his clients $240 million – the seventh-largest civil judgment of 2000, according to USA Today.)

Though critics charge he can’t possibly devote adequate attention to his cases, Cochran denies he’s stretched too thin. “I see myself as a worker in the vineyard,” he says. Cochran doesn’t want to go into politics or become a movement leader, but he does think he’s carved himself a minor place in the civil-rights pantheon. Sure, the Cochran Firm makes bucketloads of dough suing corporations and municipalities in cases that have nothing to do with racism, but what he’s really interested in is using the law for social change. Cochran wants to model his career on Thurgood Marshall, not the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. For now, at least, he has it both ways. While the Cochran Firm takes lucrative slip-and-falls, he retains an association with Scheck and Neufeld, and they are inevitably in on the cases he really cares about: those that highlight what he sees as pervasive racism in American law enforcement. “It’s not about being popular all the time,” Cochran says. “It’s about trying to make some real change.”

So it’s no surprise that soon after arriving in New York, Cochran allied himself with Al Sharpton. The two of them have become ubiquitous at press conferences charging police brutality, surrounded by victims or their families.

Sharpton claims he has steered nearly every one of Cochran’s high-profile local civil-rights cases to him, and denies charges that the lawyer is a racial ambulance chaser. “From day one, we made it clear we would work together,” he says. “He’s been a lawyer and legal adviser to the movement. One of the misconceptions is Johnnie seeks out these cases. Not true.” Sharpton says he put Cochran in touch with Louima and Mrs. Diallo, with Dorismond’s family, and with the New Jersey Four. “In all of those cases, the victims called me; Johnnie did not call the victims. The reason I referred him is he brings integrity and a track record. To reduce Johnnie to a flamboyant necktie or to O. J. Simpson is to reduce someone who has dealt with police brutality for decades.”

Peter Neufeld says Cochran’s involvement in all his cases is “all-encompassing”; he says that Cochran’s strong suit is public relations. “In the Louima case, it meant going out into churches and discussing the issues and how the issues can impact on the community,” Neufeld says. “Johnnie was the most visible. I don’t think Barry and I are invisible, but if things don’t work out in the legal profession, he would do fine in the ministry. He’s excellent at reaching out.”

Cochran’s arrival in New York has not been greeted with cheers and (autograph seekers) all around, especially in the legal community, where his occasional grandstanding has frustrated a growing number of his local colleagues. Some lawyers complain that he poaches high-profile cases. Brian Figeroux, the first Louima attorney, abruptly dismissed when Cochran came aboard, gave a terse reply when questioned about Cochran: “We are considering going to either the New York State Bar grievance or ethics committee.”

Cochran’s predecessor on the Diallo case, Kyle Watters, was a bit more forthcoming. Watters got involved in the case originally because he represented the Ghanaian Association. He watched the case slip into Cochran’s hands once Sharpton showed up and won over Kadiatou Diallo, Amadou Diallo’s mother. Watters recalls that he received separate phone calls from Neufeld and Scheck asking if he needed help. He told them both no. Soon enough, Cochran had become involved and Watters angrily stepped away. (Neufeld denies he or Scheck would ever insert himself into a case without being invited: “We have never reached out to anyone, ever, to secure representation.”)

He’s too big and he’s worked too long in the white world playing by the rules to be dissed by the vice-president.

According to one source, Mrs. Diallo began complaining about her decreasing involvement in her son’s case soon after Cochran took charge. She eventually fired Cochran, though he insists it was a friendly parting. Her new lawyers advised her not to respond for comment.

Puffy Combs’s first attorney, Harvey Slovis, is also displeased about losing his client to Cochran. “In my opinion, this is a Legal Aid case that’s been turned into a show,” Slovis grouses. “Any Legal Aid lawyer could win this.” Slovis – who had managed to wrangle a misdemeanor and anger-management course for his client in a previous beating case – resigned after Puffy brought in Cochran.

Some predicted that Cochran and his equally media-savvy colleagues in the Combs case – Ben Brafman and Murray Richman – would soon find themselves jockeying for position, in a repeat of his famous struggle with Robert Shapiro. But Brafman says it hasn’t happened. “From the moment he first proposed bringing me in as co-counsel on the Combs case, there has not been one minute of disagreement.”

More serious are allegations that Cochran and his associates are resorting to dirty racial politics in the Puffy case. Some sources claim he was behind a persistent rumor that prompted the New York Times to investigate charges of racism against Matthew Bogdanos, the prosecutor in the case. After calling a number of judges and lawyers, Times reporters deemed the story untrue.

Asked specifically whether he was behind the Bogdanos smear attempt, Cochran vigorously denies it: “Wasn’t me, wasn’t me! I heard about it, though.”

In any case, it’s uncertain how well a racially based defense would play for the millionaire rapper. One lawyer warns that “what works in California will not work in New York. The black community regards Combs as an exploiter. A ‘poor-Puffy’ defense won’t wash.”

Richman, attorney for Combs’s driver, Shyne Barrow (who faces the more serious charge of actually having fired a gun the night Puffy was arrested), disagrees: “I’m a white guy who has no problem with the race card. It’s disingenuous to say race plays no part in these things. Whether defendants are white or black, it is a factor.”

Some grumble it’s a factor Cochran uses in his own interests. “If he disagrees with you, Cochran will say, ‘You called me a nigger’ – that’s character assassination!” complains one of Cochran’s less admiring New York colleagues.

Cochran is well aware of such criticisms, and they occasionally they get under his skin. When Andrea Peyser implied he was a liar in one of her columns, he promptly sued the New York Post in Los Angeles for $10 million, arguing that because the Post is online, his reputation there had been damaged. The case was tossed out. “I learned never to sue anybody who buys ink by the barrel,” he says now.

Though Cochran insists he has no regrets about defending Simpson, it’s clear that he wants to get the case behind him. He’s too big and he’s worked too long in the white world playing by the rules to be dissed by the likes of the vice-president.

“I think he is genuinely religious,” says Calvin Butts. “He’s a lawyer, and what segments of the white community feel about him is totally unfair. White lawyers take cases like that, too. He never said he thought O.J. was innocent; he just defended a client. “

Racing around New York with Ernest behind the wheel, flying back and forth between the coasts, Cochran barely keeps up with all the requests for appearances – ten or fifteen arrive in the mail every day, he says. But he tries. It’s as though he were burning off bad karma, trying to prove his critics wrong. In the month I kept tabs on him, he spent more time making philanthropic calls and speaking at places like the Center for Constitutional Rights and Harvard Law School than he did handling legal matters. No group is too small or insignificant to deserve his presence. When he showed up at Antun’s banquet hall in Queens for the annual Queens chapter NAACP dinner, he was backed into a corner by people wanting their pictures taken with him. The alarmed restaurant staff said that not even a recent Hillary visit had provoked such a mob rush.

In addition to donating his time, he’s also been forking over cash. In 1998, Cochran, who is a millionaire many times over, endowed the Johnnie L. Cochran Art Foundation with seed money of $250,000, and he’s also planning to endow a chair at Howard University. At the New-York Historical Society right now, there’s an exhibit called “Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging,” co-sponsored by Dale and Johnnie Cochran.

“That’s the kind of thing I like to do,” he says. “I’m big on art as a bridge between communities. So I not only do the legal stuff; I try to do things in the community. Church-art-community, that’s my thing.” At Christmas he forked over $6,000 for a pew in the refurbished Abyssinian Baptist Church and another couple grand for a cornerstone.

Not long ago, after a conference with Puffy, he attended an NAACP awards dinner honoring one of the first artists funded by the Cochran Art Foundation. Standing next to a window in a solitary moment, Cochran reflected on his decision to abandon criminal law.

“You know, I always said that once I got Geronimo Pratt out, I could retire with a clear conscience. I got him out. I can’t retire with a clear conscience yet, but I can certainly get out of criminal law. I felt it had reached a point of diminishing returns. You represent somebody and get them out, and then they’re back in trouble again. And I started to worry about it.

“I’m near the end of my career. I’m 63. I figure I’ve got more years behind me than in front of me. And I figure, whether I’m here or not, it’s the ideas that are important, and that’s why I want to do things like work on the reparations group or endow something at Howard University, so the kids coming up learn they can’t go out and make money and forget where they came from. You know, especially for those of us who are African-Americans, there but for the grace of God go I.”

Johnnie Come Lately