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Attorney Johnnie Cochran took on highly publicized police brutality cases and famously defended such celebrity clients as Michael Jackson and O. J. Simpson.
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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."
Another memorable case further steered Cochran toward working on behalf of his race. In the early 1970s, he went to court in defense of Geronimo Pratt, a former Black Panther who stood accused of murder. Cochran lost that case too,
but he insists to this day that Pratt was railroaded by the F.B.I. and local police. "White America just can't come to grips with this," Cochran explained in Essence. "To them the police are as they should be: saving children, acting like heroes in the community. They aren't setting up people, they're not lying, they aren't using their racist beliefs as an excuse to go after certain people." Cochran has continued to press for a re-trial in the Pratt case.
Such headline-grabbing cases quickly made Cochran's name among the black community in Los Angeles, and by the late 1970s he was handling a number of police brutality and other criminal cases. In an abrupt about-face in 1978, however, he joined the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. Cochran has said that he took the job because he wanted to broaden his political contacts and refashion his image. "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," he explained in The American Lawyer.
Cochran's position at the district attorney's office did not spare him a brush with racist police. One afternoon as he drove his two young daughters across town in his Rolls Royce, he was pulled over. The police yelled at him to get out of the car with his hands up, and when he did he could see that they had drawn their guns. "Well, talk about an illegal search and seizure!" Cochran exclaimed in The American Lawyer, recalling the event. "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 apoplectic. I never got stopped again, but I'm careful not to make any weird moves. I might get shot!"
Cochran never publicized the incident, but he was deeply disturbed about its effect on his two daughters. "I didn't want to tell them it was because of racism," he added. "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.... 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."
Returning to private practice in 1983, Cochran established himself as "the best in the West," to quote Ebony magazine. One of his first major victories occurred in the case of Ron Settles, a college football player who police said had hanged himself in a jail cell after having been picked up for speeding. On the behalf of Settles' family, Cochran demanded that the athlete's body be exhumed and examined.
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Learn more about black history's most esteemed legal professionals, from African-American pioneers such as George Washington Williams and Constance Baker Motley, to legendary Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Thurgood Marshall, to high-profile Harvard grads Barack and Michelle Obama, and many more. Explore our list of famous black lawyers, including full biographies, photo galleries and videos, only on Biography.com.
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