Johnnie Come Lately


Johnnie Cochran continues his “Journey to Justice” on a ghetto pass to New York. Some among the city’s frontline black activist leadership, who 10 months ago sanctioned Cochran’s arrival, now believe the flamboyant California attorney muscled his way into the Abner Louima police brutality case like a trespassing junkyard dog. They claim that Cochran—who is representing three of the shooting victims in the New Jersey Turnpike racial-profiling scandal—is on a mission to hijack high-profile cases from them and steal the limelight as New York’s top black advocate for racial justice. As Cochran assumes greater importance here, and attempts to ingratiate himself with black community leaders and victims of alleged police misconduct, tensions have mounted.

Currently, a debate is raging over whether this Johnnie come lately’s so-called ghetto pass, which allows him access to the black community, should be revoked. The dispute has evolved into a massive quarrel inside the Harlem-based National Action Network, the city’s most active civil rights organization. Some associates of the Reverend Al Sharpton, the group’s leader, say bitter animosities have arisen over Sharpton’s close rapport with Cochran.

The infighting erupted after Cochran and two white members of the O. J. Simpson “dream team”–Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld–apparently maneuvered their way into the Turnpike caseand convinced one of the victims to desert Brooklyn attorney Carl W. Thomas. Cochran and Thomas, whom many black activists regard as a hero of the Abner Louima affair,had argued publicly about Cochran’s sudden intervention into the case last fall.

In January, Thomas, Brian Figeroux, and Casilda Roper-Simpson quit the Louima legal team over what they described as “professional and ethical differences” with Cochran, Scheck, and Neufeld. Thomas, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, accused Cochran and company of ignoring minority concerns about cops and of isolating the case from the larger movement against police brutality. Hetold one reporter that Cochran “has a significant amount of baggage” stemming from the Simpson case, including the “perception that he was, in some ways, dishonest.”

Louima’s retraction of his initialstatement that police officers had invoked Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s name during the attack on him helped to spark the angry exodusof Thomas and his partners, who were the first lawyers Louima hired. Thomas’s group charged that Cochran and his team had accused Figeroux of making up the phrase “It’s Giuliani time,” which they vehemently denied. Their departure resulted in Cochran becoming the lead attorney on the Louima team.

According to a Sharpton aide who wished to remain anonymous, one faction in the Sharpton camp wants the minister to “tell Johnnie Cochran off.

“Has Johnnie Cochran been formally introduced to the black community in New York?” he sneered. “Have they been accorded the opportunity to hear why he is really among us? Why does he have two white men [Scheck and Neufeld] fronting for him? Ghetto passes expire, and it maybe time for Johnnie to pack up and leave before the black community declares him persona non grata.”

Cochran did not return numerous calls placed to his New York and California law offices.

Reverend Sharpton’s advisers have discussed the possibility that the minister’s role as the key player in the city’s civil rights movement could be threatened by Cochran’s ambitious plans. Despite such concerns, an aide says Sharpton adopted a “wait and see attitude” toward Cochran afterCochranco-hosted a June 5 fundraiser at Sharpton’s Flatbush home for Louima’s cousin Samuel Nicolas, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in Brooklyn’s 42nd Assembly District.

Sharpton, the disgruntled aide lamented, prefers to present a unified front even after some members of his inner circle have pointed out Cochran’s penchant for being AWOL when it comes to “marching for our civil rights in hot sun and cold weather.

“Where’s Johnnie when we’re absorbing the ‘nigger-go-home’ taunts and other abuses from white people?” the aide fumed. Sharpton, he added, refused to criticize Cochran for failing to join in a protest march through Bensonhurst the day after the fundraiser. Sharpton was protesting the release from prison of the leader of a white mob that attacked and killed 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins in the predominantly Italian American neighborhood nine years ago.

Following the march, the aide noted, Cochran stood up Sharpton and nearly 300 people who had packed the gymnasium at Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton for a rally in support of the Turnpike shooting victims. East Orange patrolman DeLacy Davis, president of Black Cops Against Police Brutality, said that Cochran had planned to meet Sharpton in Trenton and may have gotten lost en route.

The aide said Sharpton may have forgiven Cochran because of his ringing defenses of the activist recently in response to queriesabout the raucous Poughkeepsie defamation trial in which Sharpton is a defendant. Former prosecutor Steven Pagones has claimed that Sharpton and activist attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason acted with malice and recklessness when, as advisers to Tawana Brawley, they accused him and other white men of attacking and raping her in 1987. Cochran has been telling reporters that Sharpton acted on the best information available to him when he stood up for the 15-year-old girl.

“Johnnie has re-strategized,” a member of Sharpton’s inner circle asserted, while acknowledging the internal dispute. “I think at first he thought he could come in and take it all, but what he realizes now is that he’s gonna have to cooperate with people like Reverend Sharpton if he wants to be the lawyer.”

This insider maintained that Cochran seems to be filling a void in black legal advocacy created by the 1995 disbarment of Mason for fee gouging and theft, and the 1990 suspension of Maddox for allegedly hampering an investigation into his conduct at the height of the Brawley fiasco.

“He hasn’t defended Maddox and Mason because he wants to replace them–not Al Sharpton,” this source said. “His threat is to Carl Thomas and Casilda Roper-Simpson and those other young black activist lawyers. He is more apt to be smashing them even if it means he has to go to Al Sharpton’s house and host a party to prove he is not coming after him.”

“Killer Cochran,”as lawyer Daniel Petrocelli refers to his California colleague in Petrocelli’s new book, Triumph of Justice, did seem to be quiteadept at “smashing” potential New York legal competitor Carl Thomas. On April 25, two days after the New Jersey Turnpike shooting, Al Sharpton contacted Thomas and asked him to act as a legal adviser to the family of Leroy Grant, one of the victims, who had pleaded with Sharpton to explain his side of the story at a news conference.

The next day the Grant family appeared at Newark’s Abyssinian Baptist Church with Keshon Moore, the driver of the minivan, and his family. Sharpton, Thomas, and Ken Timmons, a New Jersey–based investigator, interrogated Moore for about an hour to determine whether he had withheldinformation.

Moore’s response remained consistent, they said: he and the other young men in the van did not have any drugs or guns. “Just a Bible and a novel.” He insisted that after they were stopped, one of the troopers knocked on the window with the butt of his gun, and that it startled him. When the minivan then started rolling backward, the troopers opened fire.

“I’m trusting him,” Sharpton told the Voice. “I’m on a limb with all the reasons in the world not to get involved.” But two days later Sharpton found himself in Camden, deeply entrenched in the case. He had been summoned there to monitor a media interview with Leroy Grant and the family of another victim of the shooting, Danny Reyes. The Reyes family told Sharpton that their lawyer, David Ironman,was involved in negotiations with Johnnie Cochran about taking over the case.

“Johnnie Cochran?” a Sharpton aide blurted out. “Why would Ironman give his case to Cochran? What is that all about?”

“Probably some crap they’re using to impress Rev,”another aide speculated.

Two days later, Leroy Grant called Sharpton from the hospital. According to a source present when Sharpton took the call, “Grant said Reyes had told him he ought to talk to Johnnie Cochran.” But Grant said he remained committed to Sharpton and was not overly concerned about friction between Cochran and Sharpton because Reyes had told him that “Johnnie said him and Rev. Al are cool.”

In the meantime, Cochran had reached out to Grant. The victim’s father told Sharpton that Cochran had phoned his son to wish him a speedy recovery and say that he was praying for him and might be representing Reyes. Then Cochran told Sharpton what he had done. “He said, ‘I want you to know I called the Grant kid and we’re praying for him,’ ” a Sharpton aide recalled.

The aide contacted Carl Thomas and briefed him about Cochran’s call to the minister and his interest in Leroy Grant. “If Johnnie wants the case let him have it,” the aide quoted Thomas as saying. “I’m not fighting over cases; we want justice.”

With Sharpton’s vocal support of the Turnpike Four, the case turned into a cause célèbre. Cochran, according to the Sharpton aide, felt comfortable enough to emerge from behindthescenes to identify with the victims. “Johnnie starts moving in,” the aide said. “Johnnie starts romancing Reyes; Reyes and themstarts romancing the Grant family and the next thing we know they are planning a press conference with Johnnie, Barry Scheck, and Peter Neufeld to announce that they are coming in the case.”

Along with the family of Rayshawn Brown, who was wounded twice in the shooting, Sharpton rebuffed an invitation to be present at the announcement. As far as the minister knew, the Grant family had not retained Cochran. “Carl was our first choice,” the aide explained. “Carl and Johnnie have their differences over Abner Louima, but some of us felt Carl shouldn’t be shoved aside.” Sharpton, he added, strongly advised the Grant family that they should go with the lawyer of their choice as long as it did not appear that the family was disrespecting Thomas.

On May 9, Leroy Grant made his first public appearance since the shooting at a House of Justice rally hosted by Sharpton. “He told Reverend, ‘Well, I want to go with Johnnie because I think he got Reyes and all of us should be together. I’ll make sure he works with the other guy.’ ” Sharpton, the aide acknowledged, felt trapped, and privately voiced his frustration over the predicament.

” ‘In all fairness,’ he said, ‘Carl helped turn the case around.’ We are saying Johnnie Cochran came in after the case had turned. Suppose that weekend the cops came back and announced that they had pulled a bag of heroin or a gun outta that car, Revand Carl Thomas’s asses woulda been grass. After all the risks were taken and the road was clear, heeeeere’s Johnnie.”

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.”