“Now let me tell you a little bit about my lawyer,” the ruthless gun runner Ordell says reassuringly to Beaumont, a convicted felon who has been caught with a concealed pistol in a car and faces 10 years in prison for violating his parole in Quentin Tarantino’s pulp fiction Jackie Brown. “His name is Stacin Goins, and this nigga is a junkyard dog! He’s my own private Johnnie Cochran. In fact, he’d kick Johnnie Cochran’s ass. And like Johnnie Cochran, dude hates fuckin’ cops.”
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 case—such as branding New York City cops as racists who plant guns on African American suspects—will 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 jurors—convicting Combs to get back at Cochran—could 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 predicament—by somehow associating the millionaire rapper with the thousands of young black men who have been randomly stopped and criminalized by the NYPD—Reverend 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.
In 1998, he sued the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the Giuliani administration for allowing unconstitutional police conduct. The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, blames the Louima attack on both the PBA and on City Hall for what it describes as deliberate indifference, which “preserved a code-of-silence environment.”
In February 1999, Cochran joined the legal team representing the family of Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant and street peddler who was gunned down by four white undercover cops assigned to the oppressive Street Crime Unit. The cops, who were searching for a rapist, fired 41 shots at Diallo in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building, hitting the unarmed man 19 times and killing him instantly. Three months later, Cochran announced that he was representing three of four minority men from New York City who were injured after two white troopers fired on their Dodge Caravan on the New Jersey Turnpike. The troopers claimed that the van was backing up to strike them, but Cochran, intensifying a growing debate on racial profiling, argued there had been no good reason either to stop the young men or to shoot.
Indeed, it seemed—as Ordell himself might have put it—that “this man lives to fuck with the police.” To the NYPD and the PBA, however, Cochran, with his trademark lilac double-breasted suit, his hustler’s smirk, and his easy mastery of ‘hoodspeak, was a carpetbagger turned ambulance chaser—just like his pal Al Sharpton. But to concerned African Americans, it was as if Sharpton had introduced them to his Stacin Goins. And when the NYPD got out of line, they called on the reverend to, in Ordell’s words, “sic the junkyard dog on their ass.”
Already, Johnnie Cochran is snapping at prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos’s theories in the case, a signal of the courtroom ferocity to come. During jury selection last Thursday, he unleashed pit bull Benjamin Brafman to discredit witnesses’ claims that Sean Combs had brandished a gun on the night of the Club New York shooting.
Two days after Christmas in 1999, cops arrested Combs, Anthony Jones, and Jamal Barrow after Barrow allegedly shot three people on the dance floor of the popular Times Square nightspot. Cops and prosecutors allege that Barrow fired into the crowd after a man dissed Combs. Barrow was charged with attempted murder, assault, and related counts. Combs and Jones were charged with two counts of illegal gun possession after police found a pistol in the Lincoln Navigator in which they and Combs’s girlfriend, actress-singer Jennifer Lopez, fled the nightclub. Police said a second handgun was thrown from the vehicle.
Egged on by approving nods from Cochran, Brafman took a shot at the police officers who captured Combs. “Can someone be arrested for a crime because police jumped to a conclusion?” he asked. (Later, Brafman predicted that “an army” of cops would storm the courtroom, eager to make the gun rap against Combs stick. When Bogdanos objected to Brafman’s characterization, Brafman referred to them as a “platoon.”) He then boldly argued that prospective jurors could “possibly consider Mr. Combs a victim” because the defendant was being held responsible for guns he did not know his associates had. Picking up a book that Bogdanos had earlier handed to a female prospective juror, Brafman used the prosecutor’s own example of the “theory of possession” against him. Declaring that “there may be a difference between knowingly possessing” something and merely having possession of it, Brafman gave the book back to the prospective juror, pointing out that it “still belongs” to Bogdanos. Asked if she felt she should be held criminally responsible if she did not know what was in the book, the prospective juror replied no.
Combs also was charged with bribery for allegedly offering to pay Wardell Fenderson, the driver of the Navigator, $50,000 to claim that the gun police allegedly retrieved from the sports utility vehicle was his. Police said Combs offered Fenderson a diamond ring Lopez had given him as collateral. Fenderson, who was not charged, is one of the prosecution’s key witnesses against Combs.
Brafman asked prospective jurors to use common sense. “Let’s assume you and someone walk into a grocery store,” he said. “Your friend figures he could put a [pack of] cigarettes in your bulky jacket: Censor goes off, and you’re pulled over by a security guard. [Your] friend says, ‘It’s mine! It’s mine!’ and then he changes his mind. Would you evaluate in your mind [why] the person who put it in your pocket . . . changed his mind?” Some prospective jurors smiled, others nodded pensively. Added Brafman: “Can you accept that people blame others for things that they have done?”
According to court papers, Fenderson also will testify that as they fled in the SUV, Jones grabbed the steering wheel and screamed at him “not to stop and to continue driving,” despite police orders to pull over. In their court papers, Cochran and Brafman cite Fenderson’s claims that “Jones acknowledged having a weapon on his person and made efforts to secrete the weapon in a compartment that had been built into the Lincoln Navigator for the purpose of securing valuable jewelry which Mr. Combs often traveled with.”
Should Combs then be held responsible for that weapon, a 9mm handgun? “Notably,” Cochran and Brafman pointed out, “Mr. Combs did not know how to access the compartment and, based on [our] understanding of the brief conversation that Fenderson overheard, Combs refused to allow the weapon to be secreted in the Navigator.” In the absence of prospective jurors, Bogdanos declared: “I will not argue that [Combs] had the trap [compartment] for the purpose [of hiding] guns. . . but that the guns would physically fit.” Bogdanos plans to present a DEA agent who will testify that guns can be hidden in the SUV’s customized compartment. Said Bogdanos: “I will argue that they were trying to place the guns in the trap.”
Brafman suggested to prospective jurors that some key prosecution witnesses—Fenderson, Natania Reuben (who was shot in the face, and was the most seriously injured), and Club New York owner Michael Bergos—want Combs convicted to enhance multimillion-dollar civil suits they’ve filed against him. “Do you agree that money sometimes can be a motivating factor?” asked Brafman, adding, “If anyone testifies and says something incriminating against Combs, can you believe that person may be an opportunist?”
There is no doubt that Johnnie Cochran wants to win his last hurrah. But what novel arguments will he raise? What outrageous new phrases can he coin? Can he out-Brafman Brafman? How far will he go to snatch victory from the righteous Matthew Bogdanos? Has Cochran’s take-no-prisoners style been impeded by criticisms, like that of New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser, that he “will say or do just about anything to win, typically at the expense of the truth”?
Cochran is not well liked by the city’s right-wing media. In a 1997 column, Peyser denounced Cochran’s addition to the team of lawyers representing Abner Louima in his civil suit against the police. Referring to Cochran’s lead role in the defense of Simpson, Peyser wrote that he was part of a team of “legal scoundrels” who “dazzled a Los Angeles jury into buying his fantasy tale of a citywide police conspiracy, in order to set free a celebrity who slaughtered his ex-wife.”
Cochran filed a $10 million libel suit against Peyser and the Post, claiming that the column accused him of unethical conduct. But last April, U.S. District Judge Kim Wardlaw dismissed the suit, saying any reasonable reader would recognize that Peyser was simply expressing her “contempt for Cochran and his trial tactics”—an expression that could not be proven true or false. “At most,” the judge added, “it conveys that Cochran performed well the role of a criminal defense lawyer—successfully developing a theory to explain the facts and tell a logical story to absolve his client.” The Combs trial offers Cochran a unique chance to seek something more than an acquittal.
Last week, in addressing the impact a courtroom stacked with celebrity defendants might have on jurors skeptical of their innocence, Benjamin Brafman rose to Cochran’s defense, saying no one should hold Cochran’s notoriety against him. “They are jumping off the page at you!” Brafman roared. “You’ve got Puff Daddy! You’ve got Shyne! You’ve got Johnnie Cochran! All of these personalities are in the mix. You do not convict someone because he has a good lawyer.” Johnnie Cochran is more than a good lawyer—he’s a great lawyer, the kind who just might reprise the most memorable words of the Simpson trial if Matthew Bogdanos cannot “physically fit” the guns he maintains Combs tried to stuff into the trap of his SUV: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 30, 2001