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BIBR talks to Johnnie Cochran – Interview

In Uncategorized on March 30, 2005 at 11:07 pm

There are many misconceptions about Johnnie Cochran, the lawyer, the man, the social activist. In his new book, A Lawyer’s Life, he tackles them with his usual brand of candor, intelligence and courage. Now, as head of the Cochran Firm, a national legal conglomerate specializing in civil law, he has reached a plateau in his career that even he could not have foreseen, using his considerable reputation to continue his battle for social justice. Recently, he agreed to a lengthy telephone interview with BIBR, taking time out from his hectic book tour and legal schedule.
BIBR: As a part of the team that worked on your first book for Ballantine, Journey to Justice, I remember the anticipation surrounding its release with the expectation of the inside scoop on the Simpson trial. What is the prime difference between that book and your new one?

JC: The new book is different in that the first one was almost purely autobiographical, showing where I’d come from, and what led me into the practice of the law. A Lawyers Life is about where I am now and why the practice of the law is so essential to the cultural and social health of the country. Also I no longer wanted to be defined by others. I’m more than just O.J. Simpson’s lawyer. It was so important to show my deep commitment to the law, justice, and social progress. True, my life has changed since I came to New York after the Simpson case, but I retain my commitment to the same goals I had when I started.

BIBR: In the new book, you speak about the groundbreaking Dred Scott and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court cases on your decision to become a lawyer. Why were those cases so crucial in your life?

JC: Those cases showed me how law, as a tool for social change, could be effective. One case legally sanctioned Jim Crow and the other set the stage for racial integration. I was especially interested in Thurgood Marshall’s strategy for winning the 1954 Board of Education case. I wanted to do my part. I wanted to join the fight, so I saw the law as the key tool for bringing about lasting change for our community. The law would not only change the society for the better but would give me a means to make my contribution to the goal of making it work for the poor and powerless. Once I set on that road, I didn’t let anything turn me around. Nothing.

BIBR: You’ve worked on a number of high-profile criminal cases, and have seen the American appetite for anything involving the law and crime. What is it that fascinates us so about these things?

JC: Yes, we saw that fascination with coverage of the O.J. Simpson case. It had all of the elements that attract public attention including race, sex and wealth. I also think everybody is intrigued with mystery and the solving of it. Like the Simpson case, people will always try to solve it, will always debate whether O.J. did it or not.
Long ago, we watched Perry Mason, The Defenders and Columbo–that detective with his rumpled raincoat who would hassle his suspects until they broke and confessed. But that fascination is still here. Look at the show Law and Order and the big audience who watch it every night. It’s on almost every night. In the new book, I tried to set up each case where readers got the facts of each one and could follow the strategy. You may not like lawyers but consider this: Lawyers used their own money to take on the tobacco cartel. They did it and won
.
BIBR: Around the country, there have been so many cases of police abuses involving black and Hispanic citizens. What will it take to correct this trend?

JC: The police abuse continues because many of our citizens have given them free rein. All they want is to be protected and to have crimes solved. Then they’re shocked by how far some of our officers go in doing their job. If there are no safeguards, some of them will act entirely outside of the law.

To rein them in, we must make them accountable and take them to court when there is wrongdoing.

Take the Schwartz case. He should have received five years for perjury, but this case [the last one] should have gone to trial. But everyone was tired. This has been a long ordeal. Abner [Louima] went along with the court’s decision. I wanted the resolution of the case in the courtroom, but I give prosecutors high marks. We worked with them and got results.

BIBR: What are the personal costs of living the demanding life of a legal advocate? How does it affect the quality of your life?

JC: Sure, this kind of life is very hard, especially on the family. You don’t spend enough quality time with your loved ones. It takes a personal toll but it’s worth it. I don’t want to sit on the beach and watch things fall apart. I made this commitment and I must fulfill it. I’m going to tell it like it is.

BIBR: In your book, you wrote about the role of money and class in trying to get justice in the courts, especially if you’re poor and disenfranchised. Can the system be changed? Or is it beyond repair?.

JC: I used to wear a T-shirt that said: “Innocent Until Proven Broke” If you don’t have money, you can’t get justice. This is a money-driven system. Many people could care less about what happens to the poor.
This is one reason why we created a national campaign, The Innocence Project, where we’re contesting convictions with DNA evidence. At present, we’ve freed about 100 people. In fact, one man was freed just two days before his last meal. Yes, the system is broken, but it can be repaired. That’s what we’re trying to do.

BIBR: Toward the end of the book, you spoke about possibly retiring, at least from criminal law. Has that happened yet or is there a timetable for that in the future?

JC: It was during the Puff Daddy case, as we fought to keep him from going to jail on gun charges, that I started thinking of leaving criminal law. Being a trial lawyer on these kinds of high-profile cases, and others as well, takes a lot out of you. Each time, the battle is very hard. It took five to seven weeks to do that case. I was worn down. Still, I wanted to do my best.
I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I decided to step back from handling the criminal cases to concentrate on civil cases.
In fact, I turned down the R. Kelly and Allen Iverson cases. There is one case that will bring me back, that of Wilbert Rideau, the writer and editor who has been unjustly jailed in Angola prison [Louisiana] for 40 years. We’re beginning to work on that.

BIBR: In this time of heightened security and terrorist alerts, one great fear has been that there will be a significant loss of civil liberties to compensate for poor government preparedness. What do you think about those issues?

JC: You should not give away your civil liberties to combat terrorism. This is mad. You can’t stop everyone because they’re an Arab. Still, if you bring up color in this matter, you’re playing a race card. If you bring the matter of rights and Arabs, you’re not a good citizen.
I’ll say this: once these rights are taken, they’ll not be given back. I keep speaking out on this.

BIBR: If there’s one thing you want readers to take away from your new book about the law, what would it be?

JC: I want people to know that the law is majestic but not perfect, uneven and sometimes unfair like anything run by men. Equal justice is worth fighting for. I understand the shortcomings of the law and try to practice it in a way where it strives for that perfection and protects the rights of everyone, no matter their race, religion or creed. Law, like our democracy, is ever-changing, ever-evolving.

I try to change with it, recognizing its potential for effectiveness and failure. That is one of the major points of the book–that justice is worth sacrificing for, worth fighting for. That has been my mission.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Cox, Matthews & AssociatesCOPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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