By William Plummer
June 13, 1994 12:00 PM

THIS SUMMER LOS ANGELES COURT WATCHERS MAY BE TREATED to a rare sight: Johnnie Cochran, the city’s premier African-American lawyer, representing Reginald Denny, the white truck driver brutally beaten by blacks in the wake of last summer’s Rodney King trial. Cochran, after all, has made a career—and a fortune—representing black victims of racial violence. Even some members of his own firm, made up of 10 black lawyers, thought that taking on Denny’s $40 million damage suit against the L.A. police might hurt his reputation with the African-American community. But in Cochran’s view, Denny’s case against the police for failing to protect him during the L.A. riots differs little from those of black plaintiffs who have accused the department of brutality and discrimination. “If the police were negligent in the way they reacted,” he says, “it shouldn’t matter whether the victim is white, black, red or yellow.”

An equal-opportunity defender, Johnnie Cochran, 56, is the man to see in L.A. if you have business with the courts—especially if you are a celebrity. When football great Jim Brown was accused of rape in 1985, Cochran won a dismissal of the charges. When teen star Todd Bridges was charged with shooting an accused drug dealer in a crack house, Johnnie won him an acquittal in 1989. And later this year, Cochran will be in court heading the defense of rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg and others, accused in a fatal shooting over traded insults.

But it is the Michael Jackson case that made Cochran himself a celebrity. Last December, Jackson was holed up in Europe, hiding from allegations that he had sexually abused a 13-year-old boy. Back home in L.A., meanwhile, Jackson’s inner circle was in disarray—at a loss as to how to keep the singer out of jail and salvage his public image. That’s when Elizabeth Taylor contacted Cochran. “I talked to Michael on the phone [from Europe], and we really hit it off,” says Cochran. “I told him he would be going through a painful process. He’s very good al listening, if he has confidence in you.”

Typically, in the Jackson case, Cochran was already known to—and respected by—all the lawyers involved. “My strategy was that Michael was innocent and he should come back and address these charges,” says Cochran, who was advised by an old friend, D.A. Gil Garcetti, that the singer would not be arrested if he returned to L.A.

Next Cochran used his clout to arrange for the city’s black clergy to hold a press conference, condemning what they called the D.A.’s persecution of Jackson. At the same time, he was negotiating with Larry Feldman, the 13-year-old boy’s attorney, a courthouse colleague. In the end, he and Feldman hammered out a settlement in which the boy received an undisclosed sum and Jackson did not admit any guilt. “It was the only way to get the case off the front pages,” says Cochran. “I wanted Michael to be able to go on with his career.”

Cochran’s own career was inspired by his father, Johnnie Cochran Sr., 78. During World War II, Johnnie Sr., the son of a Louisiana sharecropper, was a top salesman for Golden State Mutual Life Insurance—one of the major black-owned companies in the U.S.—and eventually became chief of the company’s training program. Johnnie Jr. and his two younger sisters grew up in the West Adams section of L.A., a mixed-race neighborhood filled with striving African-American families fervently attached to their churches.

After Los Angeles High, where he hung out with a kid named Dustin Hoffman, Cochran studied al UCLA, then Loyola Law School, graduating in 1962. “I was one of those guys who prayed he’d be called on,” says Johnnie. “I was that competitive.”

Cochran joined the L.A. city attorney’s office, but left in 1965 to establish his own practice. A year later he got the case that made him. That May, a young black named Leonard Deadwyler had been shot and killed by the LAPD while driving his pregnant wife to the hospital. The Deadwyler family, Cochran’s clients, disputed the officers’ claim that they had shot in self-defense. Cochran lost the case. But the city of L.A.—still a tinderbox in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots—decided to put the trial on TV, and Cochran became famous overnight.

Over the next decade, Cochran built a lucrative practice by suing for damages on behalf of clients alleging mistreatment by the police department. By 1977, “I already had my first Rolls-Royce,” he says. At that point, upset by what he regarded as L.A.’s indifference to police brutality, Cochran joined the district attorney’s office. “I took a fivefold pay cut,” says Cochran, “but I was able to make changes from the inside. I created a special ‘roll-out’ unit of deputy D.A.s to investigate police shootings.”

One Saturday evening in 1979, Cochran brushed up against the police himself. Recently divorced from his wife, Barbara, a teacher, after 19 years of marriage, he was driving with his three children—Melodie, now 32, Tiffany, 24, and Jonathan, 21—when he was stopped by a patrol car. “I think they couldn’t believe an African-American could be driving his own Rolls-Royce,” says Cochran. “They pulled their guns and yelled, ‘Get out with your hands up.’ My children were terrified. Only after they allowed me to pull out my wallet and saw my deputy D.A.’s badge did they apologize.” Cochran, who is famously laid-back in his private life, declined to report the incident, saving his “fierceness,” as associate Carl Douglas calls it, for the courtroom.

Returning 16 private practice in 1981, Cochran soon snared another high-profile case. Cal State, Long Beach, football star Ron Settles had been picked up for speeding in Signal Hill, in Los Angeles County. Shortly after his arrest, he was found hanged in his cell. The police called it a suicide, but an autopsy, performed after Cochran persuaded Settles’ family to exhume the body, showed that he had been choked to death. The family was awarded $760,000. “What was really important about that case,” says Cochran, “was that the Signal Hill police chief resigned and the department had to change its way of doing things. The case made a real difference. And that’s what it’s all about.”

That plus enormous cash awards. Since the Settles case, Cochran’s firm has won some $43 million in judgments against police departments, earning Cochran himself more than $1 million a year. His success has brought him a luxurious home with a view in the old-money Los Feliz section of L.A., where he lives with his second wife, Dale, 43, and his widowed father. It has allowed him to be his own man.

Lounging in his Wilshire Boulevard office, Cochran says there is one thing he has learned in his 30-year career. “It’s never wrong,” he says, “to ask questions regarding the official version [of a crime]. I’ve learned that you really can fight city hall. One person can make a difference.”


DORIS BACON in Los Angeles