Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

David, Goliath and the American Justice System

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

David, Goliath and the American Justice System

Article excerpt

David, Goliath and the American Justice System.

As a reluctant spectator of the year-and-a-half-long O.J. Simpson murder trial, one of the most difficult tasks for me was to keep my personal distress over this particularly disturbing case separate from my regard for the many fine African-American attorneys involved on both sides of the bar.

Working as I do on the law school campus of a predominantly Black university, I realized long ago that the most notable person on the Simpson "dream team," the ever-dapper Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., was viewed by many of the aspiring young lawyers-to-be on my campus as a legend and a hero. To them, Cochran, who took up the reins of this controversial trial five months into its sixteen-month course, is the dashing brown David, sassing back to the bludgeon-wielding white Goliath of the police state. He is the Armani-wearing African-American equivalent of Clarence Darrow: the man who dared beat the U.S. criminal justice system at its own game in its Golden State, and who, throughout his career, has defied those who blithely conclude that for Black folks and other people of color "justice" means "just us" in the nation's jails.

At the outset, I feared that Cochran had traded his birthright for a mess of pottage in accepting the Simpson case. Yet, I was there that day in October 1995 in the campus's moot court room, stunned and taken aback as a crowd of budding Black attorneys rose in one jubilant body when the jury handed down their verdict: "not guilty." It quickly became evident, however, that the sounds and tears of joy were as much for Cochran's brilliant arguments as for anything else. And soon thereafter, I too joined those who came to admit that, whether justice was served that day or not, Johnnie L. Cochran had forged an inimitable defense for his client.

Journey to Justice, one of the more compelling volumes to waft ashore in the backwash of the Simpson affair, presents a similarly successful vindication of Cochran, who took quite a few hits himself -- along with his profession -- in that trial. In this highly readable and engaging autobiography, Cochran weaves a plausible, if not unabashedly self-serving and purposely inspirational tale of his lifelong love affair with the law. It is a tale that, if approached with the same open mind expected of jurors, squarely positions Cochran as one of the most outstanding trial lawyers of today.

In true advocate's style, Cochran presents himself as he would a well-paying client in dire straits. As if beseeching a jury, he (with the assistance of L.A. Times reporter-collaborator Tim Rutten) notes that his client came (as all innocent clients do) from humble beginnings: an idyllic, loving family, replete with an aspiring and erudite patriarch, a matriarch who was a paragon of virtue, an active, ever-present religiosity, and a wholesome work ethic. As if fighting to regain his credibility (or to distance himself from his celebrity clients?) we glimpse an attorney's-eye view of Cochran the man: the suave, street-smart Californian whose teenage goal was simply to labor in the righteous vineyards of the law.

Likening himself to the ebullient yet beleaguered Darrow, the effective and steadfast Thurgood Marshall, and other notable trial lawyers of various days, Cochran paints a picture of himself as a willing servant of the people -- albeit an often highly compensated one -- and a bonafide member of the "Talented Tenth" of Black high-achievers. As well, he shows himself to be one who has learned how to meld -- without compromising his "soul" -- into the distinctively different yet inextricably intertwined worlds of Black and white -- and to be comfortable, successful, and outspoken in both.

Thus, if Cochran buys into the David versus Goliath scenario in these memoirs, it should come as no surprise. If more than once this story takes on a pharisaical tone (indeed, most of the title chapters make references to Scripture), then so much the better. …

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