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This image of Johnnie Cochran as a cop hater evolved during his victorious defense six years ago of football great O.J. Simpson, who was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1994. Cochran led the "Dream Team" of lawyers who caught former Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman in a lie after he swore under oath he had not used the word "nigger" in years. A taped interview revealed Fuhrman used the word commonly, and also had bragged about planting evidence in other cases. Fuhrman collected much of the evidence against Simpson, including a bloody glove.
Today Cochran, now one of the country's most famous lawyers, is representing hip hop mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs at his trial on charges of gun possession and bribery, which began on Monday in state supreme court in Manhattan. Combs's bodyguard, Anthony "Wolf" Jones, and gangsta rapper Jamal "Shyne" Barrow are co-defendants contesting separate charges arising out of the December 27, 1999, Club New York shooting in which three patrons were injured.
Will Cochran make Mark Fuhrmans out of the cops who apprehended Combs, turning questions about the arrest into a civil rights cause célèbre? Some courtroom watchers fear that any return by Cochran to the controversial tactics he employed in the Simpson casesuch as branding New York City cops as racists who plant guns on African American suspectswill backfire on the embattled rapper.
It is Cochran's first involvement in a high-profile criminal case since springing Simpson, and these observers contend that scapegoating by jurorsconvicting Combs to get back at Cochrancould creep into the trial. Attorney Benjamin Brafman, Combs's co-counsel, downplayed the possibility of "overspill prejudice" from the Simpson case, asserting that prospective jurors admired Cochran. "Ninety-nine percent of the jurors who were interviewed said that they thought Mr. Cochran was a brilliant lawyer who did a masterful job in the O.J. Simpson case," Brafman told the Voice. "I don't think the O.J. Simpson case is going to have any impact whatsoever on our trial." New York Post reporter Laura Italiano observed that "One black woman seemed awed by . . . Johnnie Cochran."
The panel in the Combs case, which Cochran maintains is his last in the arena of criminal litigation, is racially divided: seven African Americans and five whites. Will white America's unfinished business with Johnnie Cochran finally be settled? As jury selection wound down last week, charges of racial profiling of prospective jurors exploded in Judge Charles H. Solomon's seventh-floor courtroom. Brafman complained that Assistant D.A. Matthew Bogdanos, who is white, was trying to keep African Americans and Latinos off the jury. But Solomon does not have the malleable temperament of Lance Ito, the judge who presided over the often raucous proceedings in the Simpson case. "Do you want to look at the racial composition of this jury?" Solomon testily asked Murray Richman, who is defending Barrow.
That race was injected early into the trial comes as no surprise to Cochran's critics: Racial profiling is the kind of hot-button issue they expect Cochran to push. During a thundering summation at the Simpson trial, Cochran, comparing Mark Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and conjuring up images of genocide, said that the LAPD detective had targeted Simpson after learning in the 1980s that Simpson was married to a white woman. An acquittal, he implored the predominantly black jury, would send a powerful message against racism and police misconduct. The jury acquitted Simpson after deliberating less than a day.
Unless Cochran is able to politicize Combs's predicamentby somehow associating the millionaire rapper with the thousands of young black men who have been randomly stopped and criminalized by the NYPDReverend Al Sharpton says he will not jump on a "Free Puffy" bandwagon. "I don't feel that's a civil rights case," says the leader of the Harlem-based National Action Network, who adds that he spurned an invitation from Cochran to appear as an observer at the Simpson trial. "Back then I told him I didn't see Simpson as a civil rights issue. In Puffy's case, Johnnie is certainly entitled to make that argument, which he has not yet made to me."
Since arriving in New York City from California in 1997, Johnnie Cochran has been embroiled in civil rights cases that have focused national attention on allegations of racial profiling and police brutality against African Americans.
With the acquiescence of Al Sharpton, Cochran insinuated himself in the cause of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was beaten and sodomized with a wooden handle by white officers in the 70th Precinct station house in Brooklyn. Cochran quickly established himself as a powerful voice of outrage, blasting the NYPD's institutionalized racism.