Q: When? A: The fall of 1964. Q: Where? A: Division 20, the misdemeanor master calendar court of the Los Angeles Municipal Court. Who? Johnny Cochran and I. Q: You mention your names and not the judge presiding? A: What do you expect from two cocky Deputy City Attorneys barely past puberty? Q: But you are telling us about this today. A: Good point. The judge was Richard Schauer who eventually became Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court and a Presiding Justice on the Court of Appeal.
Q: Impressive, but specifically what did you and Johnny Cochran do? A: We were prosecutors, seeking to put behind bars, (county jail bars that is ) dangerous criminal misdemeanants who prey upon an unsuspecting public. Q: How would you characterize the two of you, first Johnny? A: Chairman of the board. Q: And you? A: Me? Q: Yes, you, Tell the truth. A: Senior vice president. Q: Who else is there? A: Lawyers, clerks, witnesses, defendants appearing with and without counsel to enter pleas of guilty or nolo contender or to be assigned out to a courtroom for trial. Q: Do the defendants know they have a right to counsel? A: No, Miranda hadn’t been decided yet. Neither had People v. Dorado (1965) 62 Cal. 2nd 338 (defendant must be advised of right to counsel).
Q: What are you and Johnny doing? A: We are “running” the master calendar court. Q: Why are you not trying cases in a trial court? A: We have tried hundreds of cases, but because we are preparing for special cases that have been assigned to us, the chief deputy has given us a respite in the master calendar court. A: What case is Johnny working on? A: He is preparing for a fraud case that will be defended by Melvin Belli. Q: What does Johnny say about his chances for success against such a formidable opponent? A: He is confident. Q: I didn’t ask for your conclusion, I asked what did he say? A: Say exactly? Q: Yes, that would be preferable. A: “I’ll kick his ass all over the courtroom.” Q: Hmmm. A: Well you asked for an exact quote.
Q: What case were you preparing for? A: The kosher chicken case. You see these chickens . . . . Q: (Interrupting) Would you mind saving that for a future column? A: I could do that. Q: We can hardly wait to read it. Isn't this column about Johnny Cochran? A: Yes, Good point.
Q: So getting back to 1964 in Division 20 of the Master Calendar Court. While you and Johnny Cochran were “running” the master calendar criminal court, did anything of significance happen? A: No, not particularly. Q: So why bring it up? A: I didn’t bring it up, you are the one asking questions. Q: But you are writing this column. A: True, but enough arguing. I remember a typical Johnny Cochran exchange with the judge. Q: So tell us about it. A: Judge Schauer called the name of a defendant, “Thomas Edison Jackson.” Johnny couldn't find the file. In a louder voice Judge Schauer said "Thomas Edison Jackson." Johnny grabbed a file in front of him and said, “Your honor, I see the light.” “Now you’ve done it,” I whispered to Johnny. There was a stunned silence in the courtroom as Judge Schauer glared at us for what seemed an eternity. Finally he spoke. “A most illuminating remark, Mr. Cochran.”
That was quintessential Johnny. He shot me a glance. "Schauer's cool," he said.
Q: So tell us more about Johnny.
A: We met in 1964, newly hired deputies at the City Attorney’s office, an ideal place for young lawyers just out of law school to get trial experience. We tried a potpourri of misdemeanors, but drunk driving cases were our staple. Have times changed. Today, a reading of .10 on the breathalyzer guarantees jail time. Back in the 60’s a reading of .15 could often be negotiated down to a reckless driving.
Many in our class of '64 went on to successful careers. Irv Sepkowitz, besides being one of the funniest and nicest human beings alive, became vice president of business affairs for Universal Studios. Ira Reiner became District Attorney, John Karns, a partner in Karns and Karabian. Charlie Lloyd went on to represent professional football players and became a successful entrepreneur. Also, part of the group was then bailiff Julian Dixon, who during tedious trials studied tedious case books in contracts and torts for his night law school classes at Southwestern Law School. He became a highly respected member of congress.
Johnny was not just a mentor to me, he was an inspiration and a model. His life had been a struggle from poverty in the south to opportunity in Los Angeles. Yet, he was always positive and cheerful. He exuded enthusiasm and confidence. Everyone liked him. If I was feeling down, his very presence was uplifting. You can imagine how juries responded to him. He would flash a smile, begin talking, and another drunk driver or other misdemeanant would bite the dust.
I vaguely remember only one case Johnny lost while in the City Attorney's Office. As I recall the defendant was comedian Lenny Bruce charged with obscenity for uttering words we hear on television sitcoms today. There was the possibility I might have to try a similar case against the playwright and poet then known as Leroi Jones. He later changed his name to Amiri Baraka and became New Jersey's third and most controversial poet laureate. His two one-act plays, “Dutchman, ” and “The Toilet” were being performed at the Coronet theater on La Cienega. I attended a performance. Sprinkled throughout the audience were plain clothes police officers furiously scribbling notes. The tough and raw language, the themes of violence and the belligerent protest against racial injustice roiled the establishment. The City Attorney’s Office under the leadership of Roger Arnebergh was contemplating action. At the conclusion of the performance actress Shirley Knight came onto the stage to rally support for freedom of artistic expression.
During the next few days, Johnny and I met with investigating officers and staff of the City Attorney’s Office to discuss whether an action should be filed. I argued, with support from Johnny, that our obligation was to prosecute criminals, not artists, whose words and language were disturbing to some. I predicted we would and should lose the case should anyone in charge be dimwitted enough to file one.
“Not a bad argument,” Johnny said. “Do the same in court, and you will be one hell of a trial attorney.” We didn’t mention Lenny Bruce.
Johnny was always strongly supportive of law enforcement, this even before his son, the Highway Patrol officer was born. His thesis was simply this. Everyone has a responsibility to do their job right, and to do it with integrity and professionalism. He approached his cases with a commitment to attain the highest level of skill and competence of which he was capable. He strived for excellence. He expected others to do the same in their professions, and that included, indeed was a fundamental obligation of law enforcement officers. "Not to much to ask," he would say, "when people’s freedom and their lives are at stake."
I recall a case in which a personable police officer who Johnny liked and admired, testified in a preliminary hearing in Judge Marion Obera's court. The officer testified that he knocked on the front door, the defendant answered and invited him into the house where he "observed large quantities of drugs." Then came the defense, something unusual for a preliminary hearing. Shortly before the officer had arrived, the defendant and his rock group had been rehearsing for an upcoming gig. They had also been recording the session. When the officer knocked, the band was taking a break, only they had forgotten to turn off the tape recorder. Need I say more. There on the tape recorder, for everyone to hear, was the pounding on the door, the rush of the officers into the room accompanied by threats and obscenities.
Johnny’s disappointment was profound. He had lost a friend, and was furious that this misconduct could reflect poorly on the vast majority of police officers who are skilled professionals dedicated to fulfilling the motto of the department, "to protect and to serve." Johnny, a champion of civil rights, was particularly chagrined because here the officer was black and the defendant white. Johnny, who was ecstatic over passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act said that at least this unfortunate incident proves we are all equal.
Johnny will always be remembered for the O.J. Simpson case. Many people are angry at him for "winning" the case. But however one may feel about O.J. Simpson, Johnny was not hired to lose the case. He pointed out flaws in the prosecution's case and the Simpson jury had a reasonable doubt. One could debate for years whether, in fact, the case was won because of Johnny's unique skill in connecting with that jury. One of the most astute commentators on the case, Ira Reiner, predicted a not guilty verdict shortly after Johnny had made his opening statement. You did not have to see the jurors to know they were hanging on to every word and gesture.
Whether as a prosecutor or defense attorney, Johnny Cochran was devoted to the cause of his clients. He was a consummate trial lawyer and a warm and engaging human being. Professor Gerald Uelman is reputed to have authored the famous quote: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." I would add the less pithy, " Johnny's the lawyer with passion and fire. Johnny's the lawyer I most admire."