by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He entered the room in a three-piece suit, sat down and began scanning an information sheet about me. I was interviewing him, but in many ways, like a good lawyer, Johnnie Cochran was preparing for me.

“I know you’re on a tight schedule,” I said, “so I’ll get right down to it.”

“OK, great,” he replied, his gaze never coming off the page. I watched his eyes dart back and forth beneath his glasses. I kept picturing a judge hanging over us, saying, “Are you ready to begin, Mr. Cochran?”

The sheet — a WJR radio press release — did not contain much ammunition. Besides, even Johnnie Cochran isn’t that fast a reader.

But he is a fast thinker. One of the nation’s preeminent trial attorneys even before the O. J. Simpson case, Cochran is now arguably the most recognized lawyer in America. Sometimes when they recognize him, they pat him on the back. Sometimes they curse him under their breath.

Cochran is, to some people, everything that is wrong with the legal system in America, a brilliant, expensive lawyer who likes the limelight, defends celebrities (Michael Jackson, Jim Brown) and isn’t afraid to make race an issue to win a case.

This is particularly true against the Los Angeles Police Department. In fact, Cochran has made a career of punching that department in the nose. And when the clerk said the words “not guilty” to O. J. Simpson, Johnnie had socked it to ’em again.

Cochran has written that “returning O. J. to his family” was one of the proudest moments of his career.

I wanted to know whether he still felt that way. The race card

“Yes, absolutely,” he said, looking at me now. “Everyone in the country was telling us we couldn’t win that case. We proved them wrong.”

Do you still believe O. J. is innocent?

“Yes, I do, based on the time lines.”

I found this a strangely tepid answer.

What if you found he really was guilty, I asked?

“I would be troubled,’ Cochran said. “I would be terribly troubled. I’m a Christian.”

I left that alone. Lawyers proclaiming religion make me nervous. I also left alone the assault charges that Cochran’s first wife twice filed against him — claiming he had pushed her, grabbed her, slapped her, ripped off her dress and threatened to beat her — charges Cochran denied and claimed were merely her attempt to get a better divorce settlement. Given what’s happened the last few weeks, I couldn’t help thinking how much that sounded like O. J. in his civil trial.

But we were not here to talk about that. So I asked Cochran more about the original case. He talked about Mark Fuhrman, the gloves, the famous “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” line.

And eventually, the discussion found its way to race. Doesn’t it always with O. J.?

“People of color didn’t decide beforehand to shout and cheer at the verdict,” Cochran said. “That represented years of racial injustice.”

Yes, I suggested, but those feelings were stirred nightly by lawyers in what was supposed to be a murder trial.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “All you need is to say the names Medgar Evers or Rodney King to remind people what was going on in the O. J. Simpson case.”

But none of those people was on trial, I protested. O. J. was. For killing his wife. Not because she was white. Not because he was black. Because the evidence suggested he had done it.

“No,” Johnnie Cochran said, “this was a racial case, because his wife was a beautiful blond. If O. J. had killed his first wife, a black woman, do you think anybody would care?”

I don’t know, I said, O. J. Simpson was a pretty famous man. Wouldn’t his murdering anyone be big news?

Cochran laughed at me.

So I guess his answer was no. Remember the victims

We went on like that for a while, verbal sparring, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t passionate about it. These people from the O. J. case — the lawyers, the commentators — are like characters from “Star Wars,” everyone knows them now.

So here I was debating with one of the most noted lawyers in the country. That has to get you going. But then it hit me. For all his passion and for all of mine, for all the voices in the daily cacophony of this endless O. J. drama, the only two we never hear from are the dead victims.

If those two murdered souls were to come back and float in front of all the people who have misinterpreted this case, and profited from this case, what would they say?

Would Nicole Brown scream at those who accused her husband, saying how could you? He didn’t kill me! Or would she and Ron Goldman look at men like Cochran, Robert Shapiro, F. Lee. Bailey, and say, “You twisted the truth just to win a case. How could you make our lives so insignificant?”

We will never know. So Cochran and I finished up. He plugged his new book, we shook hands and he left. It was just another interview, better than some, not as good as others.

The truth is, when it comes to O. J., unless we figure how to talk to the grave, there are really no interviews left worth hearing.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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