What Impact Has Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Had on Social Justice?
From over 85 thought-provoking essays, Resurrection Church and The Cochran Firm joined in presenting a $2,500.00 check to the winner of the first Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Scholarship to Trenyce Williams. A graduate of University High School, Miss Williams will be attending Tuskegee University for the fall 2015 term and will be pursuing a major in Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Johnnie Cochran was also instrumental in the fight for social justice both in the field and in the courtroom. Many are familiar with him from the O.J. Simpson case, but his career highlighted many important cases that had a major impact on minority communities. Mr. Cochran represented individuals and families who were victims of police brutality. One such case was that of Leonard Deadwyler, a 25 year old who was shot and killed by the police in 1966. Johnny Cochran represented the family and even though he did not win the case, as a result of his work, police policy changed and officers were no longer allowed to put any part of their bodies into a car that is under a suspect’s control (Johnson & Shuster). The case also engaged the community. Minorities began to pay more attention to the issue of police brutality and demand that justice prevail.
During this time Johnnie Cochran became a symbol of hope for those affected by police brutality. He fought many cases of police brutality. In 1981, he assisted the parents of Ron Settles in their lawsuit against the City of Signal Hills and the Signal Hills Police Department in the killing of their son, a 21 year old football player who attended California State University, Long Beach. Mr. Cochran argued that Ron had been severely beaten, strangled and killed while in the custody of the Signal Hill Police Department. He also charged that the department promoted a policy of excessive use of force, particularly against blacks, in its training programs (Cummings). Again, this case demonstrates Mr. Cochran’s role as a fighter for social justice. Not only did the Settles family receive a $760,000 settlement, but once again policy changes were implemented. Police departments changed the way they dealt with prisoners, added video cameras to areas within jails, and began requiring reports any time a police officer or correction officer touched a prisoner in a restraining way.
Mr. Cochran was most proud of the legal victory he won when he was able to get Geronimo Pratt exonerated after 27 years in prison. Pratt had been convicted of the 1968 kidnapping and murder of Caroline Olsen, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher. Mr. Cochran worked on the case the entire time and was able to not only get Mr. Pratt released but also helped him receive a $4.5 million settlement for false-imprisonment on the grounds that prosecutor’s concealed evidence that could have led to his acquittal (Lopez).
Mr. Cochran was known for taking on high-profile cases but he also took on cases of ordinary citizens who needed help. He spotted injustice and was ever ready to fight it. He was a leader, a visionary and an agent for change. He broke barriers by becoming the first black District Attorney in the County of Los Angeles. I can imagine the racism and discrimination he must have faced in that position but he did not let anything stop him. He was a great lawyer and a great advocate whose work has gone down in history books and will never be forgotten.
Attorneys in the current fight for social justice can look to his work and use it as an example of how to represent the disenfranchised. Mr. Cochran used his education and legal skill to make changes to the way law enforcement treats minorities. Unfortunately, there are still countless stories of police brutality and abuse of power. We can look to Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, and even here in Los Angeles and see that there is much work to do. The legacy of Mr. Cochran should continue as we look to end racial discrimination and abuse not only in law enforcement but in every aspect of American lives.
Cummings, Judith. Suit Over Football Player’s Death In Coast Jail Settled For $1 Million. New York Times. (1983, Jan. 14).
Johnson, John and Shuster, Beth. Shootings Recall Dangers of Traffic Stops. Los Angeles Times. (1996, Mar. 16).
Lopez, Robert. Elmer ‘Geronimo’ Pratt dies at 63; Former Black Panther Whose Murder Conviction Was Overturned. Los Angeles Times. (2011 , Jun 3).