Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who became a legal superstar with his own cable TV show after helping clear O.J. Simpson, died Tuesday in Los Angeles of a brain tumor. He was 67.
Over the years, Cochran also represented football great Jim Brown on rape and assault charges, actor Todd Bridges on attempted murder charges, rapper Tupac Shakur on a weapons charge, rapper Snoop Dogg on a murder charge and rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs on gun and bribery charges stemming from a nightclub shooting.
“Johnnie Cochran stood for justice, integrity and grace,” Combs said in a statement. “Johnnie believed in me and justice when few others did.”
His famous, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” phrase has been quoted and parodied for years. It derived from a dramatic moment during which Simpson tried on a pair of bloodstained “murder gloves” to show jurors they did not fit. Some legal experts called it the turning point in the trial.
Soon after, jurors found the football star not guilty of the 1994 slayings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.
“Johnnie is what’s good about the law,” Simpson said in a telephone interview from Florida. “He loved the system. … I don’t think I’d be home today without Johnnie.”
For Cochran, Simpson’s acquittal was the crowning achievement in a career notable for victories, often in cases with racial themes. He was a black man known for championing the causes of black defendants. Some of them were famous, like Simpson and, later, former Black Panther Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit before Cochran helped him win his freedom. Most of the lawyer’s clients, however, were unknowns.
By the time Simpson called, the byword in the black community for defendants facing serious charges was: “Get Johnnie.”
After Simpson’s acquittal, Cochran appeared on countless TV talkshows, was awarded his own Court TV show, traveled the world giving speeches, and was endlessly parodied in films and on such TV shows as “Seinfeld” and “South Park.” He also played himself on shows such as “JAG” and “The Hughleys.”
In “Lethal Weapon 4,” comedian Chris Rock plays a policeman who advises a criminal suspect he has a right to an attorney, then warns him: “If you get Johnnie Cochran, I’ll kill you.” Cochran enjoyed that parody so much, he even quoted it in his autobiography, “A Lawyer’s Life.”
Cochran was born in Shreveport, La., the great-grandson of slaves. He came to Los Angeles with his family in 1949, and became one of two dozen black students integrated into Los Angeles High School in the 1950s. Even as a child, he had loved to argue, and in high school he excelled in debate.
After graduating from UCLA, Cochran earned a law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He spent two years in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office before establishing his own practice, later building his firm into a personal injury giant with more than 100 lawyers and offices around the country.
Flamboyant in public, he kept his private life shrouded in secrecy.
He is survived by his wife Dale Mason, a son, two daughters and two sisters. His first marriage ended in divorce.