Thursday, March 31, 2005

Why Johnnie Cochran Jr. Was Important

If you were to do word association with 100 people and say "Johnnie Cochran Jr.," it's a pretty good bet that 100 of them would reply "O.J. Simpson." That is the case that made Cochran a household name and, to many, a name associated with a justice system where a good lawyer can get you acquitted of almost anything.

But as I think of Johnnie Cochran's death Tuesday, at 67, of an inoperable brain tumor, I do not think of O.J. Simpson or any of his other celebrity cases. Rather, I think of his long, quieter history of working for civil rights and individual liberties and his commitment to lesser-known defendants.

"The clients I've cared about the most are the 'No Js', the ones who nobody knows," he once said. "Those are the cases I've gratefully taken even though the chances for getting paid are actually pretty slim."

Specifically, I think about the case of Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt. Cochran represented Pratt, a Vietnam Veteran and former Black Panther, who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Cochran called the day when he won Pratt's freedom in 1997 "the happiest day of my life practicing law."

Pratt had been convicted in the death of a young school teacher in Santa Monica but Cochran proved that he was actually the victim of the government's political fights with the Black Panthers and of an informant, Julius Butler, who brought in the key piece of evidence against him. Cochran helped prove that Butler had lied in his charges against Pratt and that there was significant government suppression of evidence that would have proven Pratt's innocence.

Pratt eventually won a $4.5 million civil settlement. The Los Angeles Police Department paid $2.75 million, the FBI $1.75 million, in what I believe was a totally inadequate penalty for their complicity in taking 27 years of a man's life.

Pratt's case stands out to me as one of the most compelling arguments against the death penalty. While he was not sentenced to death – he received 25 years-to-life in prison – an innocent man would undoubtedly have been executed if he had received the death penalty. Appeals on death sentences drag on a long time but not for 27 years.

I cite this case often in my arguments against the death penalty and, whenever I do, I think of this kind of contribution by Cochran and not the acquittal of O.J. Simpson.

To be sure, if I was ever on trial for a crime I did not commit, this is the guy I would have wanted in my corner.