Obituary: Johnnie Cochran

Flamboyant American lawyer noted for his courtroom theatrics - he won cases both for famous stars and victims of police brutality

A single remark in the world's most watched trial made Johnnie Cochran, who has died of a brain tumour aged 67, the most famous lawyer in America. But "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" - his phrase for the bloodstained glove in the OJ Simpson double murder case - was as dubious as the nationally disputed acquittal.

The 1995 trial made Cochran and Simpson, both African-Americans, symbols of racial divisions in America that the case's verdict highlighted. Simpson, a rich former football player, film actor and model, was regarded as guilty by about 80% of white Americans. In black America, the percentage was reversed.

The televised trial in Los Angeles, which riveted the nation for nearly a year, accused Simpson of the savage knife killings of his former wife Nicole Simpson and a waiter acquaintance visiting her house to return mislaid spectacles. But the prosecution's bungling of the mountain of evidence was dramatically illustrated by the glove episode.

Cochran, the flamboyantly dressed leading defence counsel in the so-called "dream team" of Simpson's lawyers, exploited it brilliantly. Instead of having an expert fit the glove on Simpson's passive hand, it was simply passed to him to put on in front of the mostly African-American jury, and he hammed up an elaborate performance in which he managed to suggest that the glove was too small. It had been found on his property by an LA detective, Mark Fuhrman, whom the defence successfully portrayed as a racist when he was found to have lied about never having used the word "nigger".

Cochran's victory in the case got him his own show on Court TV, and he turned his LA practice into The Cochran Firm, with an office in New York. There, he soon became a central figure in several high-profile cases. In 2001 he successfully represented a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, who was brutally assaulted by policemen. The settlement cost the city $8.75m (£4.65m).

But the case that Cochran was most proud of was a less-reported one that took much longer: the 25-year battle to free Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt in a murder case. The former Black Panther leader and Vietnam veteran had been convicted of killing a white schoolteacher on a tennis court in Santa Monica, California, but the main evidence came from a man who, it was later revealed, was a secret police informer. Not until 1997 was the Pratt conviction overturned, and he was awarded compensation of $4.5m (£2.4m) for decades of false imprisonment.

Another case that Cochran succeeded in, but which also caused resentment, was the first child molestation case involving Michael Jackson and a boy of 13. It was settled for an undisclosed sum, believed to be $15-20m, in 1994, after the boy refused to testify against the pop star. But his allegations may be brought up in the current molestation case against Jackson, a judge ruled on Monday.

Cochran always enjoyed the limelight, and his cases featured many famous names. He won an acquittal in 2001 for the rap star Sean "P Diddy" Combs on weapons and bribery charges, and in 1981 took on the case of a Californian football star, Ron Settles, who died from a chokehold while in police custody.

One of his earliest cases was little known and less characteristic, but also involved a famous name. In 1964, Cochran, as a prosecutor in LA, brought a case of obscenity against the comedian Lenny Bruce, a pioneer of radical humour who often used four-letter words and was hugely controversial at the time. But the young deputy city attorney lost the case and in his 1996 memoir, A Lawyer's Life, Cochran conceded that his prosecution was contrary to the American constitution's protection of free speech.

Johnnie L Cochran (the middle initial stood for nothing) was born in a small town in Louisiana, the son of a pipe fitter who became an executive in an insurance company and moved the family to the northern California suburb of Alameda. Cochran graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1959 with a degree in business administration and then attended Loyola Law School; he obtained his degree three years later.

He joined the LA city attorney's office and began handling minor cases such as drunk driving and assaults. In 1966, he decided to form his own private practice, specialising in police brutality. His successes made him a hated figure among the LAPD.

Cochran often demonstrated a flair for courtroom theatrics. In one case, his client, who was accused of robbery, claimed that it was mistaken identity. Cochran asked the victim, who was testifying on the witness stand, to point out the robber in the courtroom.

Without hesitation she pointed to the man at the defence table next to Cochran and said: "That's him sitting at the table." But Cochran, knowing this was the usual response, had seated his client among the spectators and put another man of similar build in the seat beside him. His client was acquitted.

Cochran was divorced and is survived by his second wife, two daughters from his first marriage, and a son from a woman with whom he had a long relatonship.

· Johnnie L Cochran, lawyer, born October 2 1937; died March 29 2005


Christopher Reed

The GuardianTramp

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