Johnnie Come Lately

Black Activists Say O. J. Simpson's Lawyer Is on a Quest To Hijack the New York Civil rights Movement

No one in the Sharpton camp wanted to argue with a man who had four bullet holes in him about who he wanted to have ashis attorney. Grant's father, who felt indebted to Sharpton for helping to trumpet the innocence of the Turnpike Four, said he would do whatever his son wanted.

On May 16,the day Sharpton led the Turnpike Freedom Ride to protest the state troopers' alleged targeting of black motorists, Rayshawn Brown's family showed up with attorney Wayne D. Greenfeder, who is representing them along with Douglas Burns. The group boarded a bus for the victims and their families, and it was there, according to a Sharpton aide, that Greenfeder let loose on Cochran.

"All of a sudden, he says, 'Where's Johnnie?' Everybody starts looking around and he says, 'Oh, I forgot, this is the frontline; he only makes it to star time." (Through his partner, Greenfeder said thatone of Sharpton's assistants had asked him what he thought about Cochran's involvement in the case, and that, "to the best of his recollection," he had responded: "Mr. Cochran brings a certain high profile, which is good for the case.")

Johnnie Cochran accepted nothing less than the starring role on Abner Louima's legal team. The notoriety from the O. J. Simpson murder trial had enhanced Cochran's standing with the Louima family, who also had grown disenchanted with Thomas and Figeroux's handling of the case. It wasn't long before Louima's uncle, the influential Reverend Philius Nicolas, bowed to Cochran who then moved swiftly to replace Thomas as lead attorney.

In public, Cochran praised Thomas and Figeroux as capable lawyers, but behind their backs he allegedly thrashed them for lacking common sense. And to some it seemed for a while that Cochran was right about the young lawyers.

It was widely believed that Thomas and Figeroux--who had 90 days to notify the city that they intended to sue on behalf of Louima--jumped the gun when, a month after the alleged attack, they asked for $100 million less than Cochran would eventually ask for. (Louima is now suing the city for $155 million.) "We took a lot of heat for that," Thomas recalls.

Both lawyers assert that Cochran, in an attempt to shore up the perception of them as incompetent, convinced Louima that filing the claim so soon amounted to an impeachable offense. "Johnnie Cochran used Abner's ignorance of the law to try to create a problem for us," Thomas says.

When an irate Louima interrogated Thomas and Figeroux about the matter, they reminded him that the notice of claim had been put through by Sanford Rubenstein--a white lawyer initally hired by Louima's uncle--and that they vigorously opposed its filing from the outset.

Ironically, Cochran's alleged intention to sow discord among Louima and his original lawyers forced Thomas and Figeroux to forge a stronger alliance with Rubenstein.

"I don't want to be unfair to Rubenstein," Thomas now says. "It didn't matter what was on the notice of claim. If he had filed for $465 million, Johnnie Cochran would have said to Abner, 'That makes you look money-grabbing, you shouldn't have done it.' It was just a pretext for Cochran to get in this case."

In the heat of the row over Abner Louima, the family of another alleged police brutality victim reached out to Thomas and Roper-Simpson. Patrick Bailey, 20, was shot and killed by police in Brooklyn last Halloween after cops said they received a report that he had been menacing people with a shotgun.

Police allegedly confronted Bailey in front of his apartment building at 731 Sheffield Avenue in East New York early that evening after a resident told officers that Bailey had threatened him with a gun. Cops said he fled into a nearby apartment building as they approached, and spun around to confront them in the hallway. One of the officers fired, hitting Bailey twice, police said. They said a shotgun was recovered at the scene.

Bailey's family retained Thomas, Figeroux, and Roper-Simpson, but shortly afterward someone called the family, saying he was from Johnnie Cochran's office. "Johnnie is a good attorney and he is interested in the case," Thomas said the unidentified solicitor importuned.

"He asked the family whether they knew that Cochran was on the Abner Louima case," Thomas said.

Thomas added that even after the family told the Cochran emissary that they were satisfied with his group's representation, the caller insisted on giving them Cochran's phone numbers in New York and California. Later that evening, Cochran called the family from California and spoke to Baily's sister Angela. According to Thomas, "He told her he had heard what happened and was calling to express his condolences, and wanted to come by to see the family. She told him we were their atttorneys, and Cochran said, 'They are friends of mine.' "

Thomas echoed a growing chorus of black activists when he told the Bailey family, "Johnnie Cochran is no friend of ours."

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