LOS ANGELES (AP) — Johnnie Cochran, who became a legal superstar after helping clear O.J. Simpson during a sensational murder trial in which he uttered the famous quote ‘‘If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,’’ died yesterday. He was 67.
Cochran died of a brain tumor at his home in Los Angeles, his family said.
‘‘Certainly, Johnnie’s career will be noted as one marked by ‘celebrity’ cases and clientele,’’ his family said in a statement. ‘‘But he and his family were most proud of the work he did on behalf of those in the community.”
With his colorful suits and ties, his gift for courtroom oratory and a knack for coining memorable phrases, Cochran was a vivid addition to the pantheon of best-known American barristers.
The ‘‘if it doesn’t fit’’ phrase would be quoted and parodied for years afterward. It derived from a dramatic moment during which Simpson tried on a pair of bloodstained ‘‘murder gloves’’ to show jurors they did not fit. Some legal experts called it the turning point in the trial.
Soon after, jurors found the Hall of Fame football star not guilty of the 1994 slayings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.
For Cochran, Simpson’s acquittal was the crowning achievement in a career notable for victories, often in cases with racial themes. He was a black man known for championing the causes of black defendants. Some of them, like Simpson, were famous, but more often than not they were unknowns.
‘‘The clients I’ve cared about the most are the No Js, the ones who nobody knows,’’ said Cochran, who proudly displayed copies in his office of the multimillion-dollar checks he won for ordinary citizens who said they were abused by police.
‘‘People in New York and Los Angeles, especially mothers in the African-American community, are more afraid of the police injuring or killing their children than they are of muggers on the corner,’’ he once said.
By the time Simpson called, the byword in the black community for defendants facing serious charges was: ‘‘Get Johnnie.’’
Over the years, Cochran represented football great Jim Brown on rape and assault charges, actor Todd Bridges on attempted murder charges, rapper Tupac Shakur on a weapons charge and rapper Snoop Dogg on a murder charge.
He also represented former Black Panther Elmer ‘‘Geronimo’’ Pratt, who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. When Cochran helped Pratt win his freedom in 1997 he called the moment ‘‘the happiest day of my life practicing law.’’
But the attention he received from all of those cases didn’t come remotely close to the fame the Simpson trial brought him.
After Simpson’s acquittal, Cochran appeared on countless TV talk shows, was awarded his own Court TV show, traveled the world over giving speeches and was endlessly parodied in films and on such TV shows as ‘‘Seinfeld’’ and ‘‘South Park.’’
In ‘‘Lethal Weapon 4,’’ comedian Chris Rock plays a policeman who advises a criminal suspect he has a right to an attorney, then warns him: ‘‘If you get Johnnie Cochran, I’ll kill you.’’
The flamboyant Cochran enjoyed that parody so much he even quoted it in his autobiography, ‘‘A Lawyer’s Life.’’
‘‘It was fun. At times it was a lot of fun,’’ he said of the lampooning he received. ‘‘And I knew that accepting it good-naturedly, even participating in it, helped soothe some of the angry feelings from the Simpson case.’’
Indeed, the verdict had done more than just divide the country along racial lines, with most blacks believing Simpson was innocent and most whites certain he was guilty. It also left many of those certain of Simpson’s guilt furious at Cochran, the leader of a so-called ‘‘Dream Team’’ of expensive celebrity lawyers that included F. Lee Bailey, Robert Shapiro, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld.
But in legal circles, the verdict represented the pinnacle of success for a respected attorney who had toiled in the Los Angeles legal profession for three decades.
Cochran was born Oct. 2, 1937 in Shreveport, La., the great-grandson of slaves, grandson of a sharecropper and son of an insurance salesman. He came to Los Angeles with his family in 1949 and became one of two dozen black students integrated into Los Angeles High School in the 1950s.
Even as a child, he had loved to argue, and in high school he excelled in debate.
He came to idolize Thurgood Marshall, the attorney who persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw school segregation in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision and who would eventually become the Supreme Court’s first black justice.
“I didn’t know too much about what a lawyer did, or how he worked, but I knew that if one man could cause this great stir, then the law must be a wondrous thing,” Cochran said in his book.