Legal hero leaves legacy

The news broke Tuesday afternoon and a laden spirit saturated the campus not long after. Students roaming the hallways phoned home and offered the news to the uninformed. Johnnie Cochran just died, they uttered to anyone who would listen.

“What? Are you serious?” the others asked. “Not Johnnie!”

The blow was more serious simply because it was so sudden. No one expected it. Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., the defense lawyer whose name had become synonymous with freedom, died at 67 from a brain tumor.

At the same time, TV newscasters and online reporters were busy updating their Web sites. Cochran “achieved worldwide fame for successfully defending football star O.J. Simpson on murder charges.”

We all heard the story. Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. Whereas the trial seemed to be heading in one direction, when O.J. hired Cochran, everything changed. Using the blood-spattered murder gloves as the evidence, Cochran had O.J. try them on to prove that they did not fit.

“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” was Cochran’s famous phrase.

Shortly after, jurors found O.J. Simpson not guilty of the slayings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

The verdict continues to seep into debates even now, dividing participants into those who think O.J. did it and those who think he did it, but are glad to see a brother get a break.

For the next few days, TV newscasters and online reporters will continue to post information about the death. They may be written by different journalists, but the tone will remain the same: “The man who got O.J. off is dead.”

Objection, your honor. Where’s the glory in that? It’s accurate, but it lacks depth. These reporters don’t know Johnnie like we know Johnnie. His legacy – although the sensationalism of the O.J. case branded him a legal superstar – extends far beyond blood-stained gloves and catch phrases. He, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., was a fighter for the people. He was an advocate of the underdog.

“The clients I’ve cared about the most are the No Js, the ones who nobody knows,” the New York Times reported Cochran saying.

That is why we care. Not that we knew him personally, but by knowing he was out there doing good for the black community, we had a little more hope in the word justice. We had a little more hope in ourselves. Maybe the world is out to get us, but with Johnnie Cochran working the legal system, we could have faith that it would not succeed.

In this generation that has been subconsciously searching for a leader to fill the vacant shoes of the Malcolms and Martins of the civil rights era, Cochran stood out as a giant among men.

Cochran helped Jim Brown. He helped former Black Panther Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt obtain his freedom in 1997 after being locked away for 27 years for a murder he didn’t commit.

He was a people’s champion, a community activist. In some indirect way, each one of his victories was a victory for each of us here at Florida A&M University.

But mainstream media won’t report this. It’s difficult to cover something fully without some connection to its meaning.

Their reports will speak nothing his influence on our generation. It’s not their fault. They just don’t know.

And even as this news continues to pass through the lips of students on campus, Cochran’s legacy will live on through us. He will be remembered. He will be missed. And most importantly, he will be our hero, whether the TV newscasters and online reporters know it or not. Case closed.

Russell Nichols is a senior magazine production student form Richmond, Calif. He can be reached at