"If it don't fit, you must acquit." Those words assured Johnnie Cochran a permanent place in American legal history. But they are far from a summary of all that made him great.
Johnnie Cochran's death at 67 comes as a shock. A brain tumor, his partner tells us. Somewhere in the recesses of that creative well, something went wrong, terribly wrong, and now we are one less warrior in a world sorely in need of a hero.
Cochran had the gift of gab, and the gift of looking a jury in the eye and inspiring trust that what he was speaking was truth. The truth he spoke was often one that ran counter to what we want to hope and to believe. He burst some common bubbles: Only the guilty are convicted, the police do not lie, power can be trusted. He had courage and his courage made it safer to be an American.
Cochran was not an oracle. He did not write books about what we should think, feel or do. He was a trial lawyer, and he was at his best in the thick of battle, when a man or woman's fate hung on the next question he would ask.
He wasn't perfect. He once, as a prosecutor, obtained a conviction of Lenny Bruce, which was later overturned on appeal. Yet even when he was on the wrong side of the aisle he was first and foremost an advocate.
Plenty about Cochran's style rubbed me the wrong way. Too brash a showman and too quick to lend his name to a case he may never even have heard of. But at least he had a style. In an age of civility and bar association cluster-humping, he stood out.
Losing him creates a void.