Cochran targets ‘covert Jim Crow’


Johnnie Cochran, who gained national fame as the lead attorney in O.J. Simpson’s successful defense against murder charges, spoke at the Law School last Friday. In a speech sponsored by the Harvard Law School Forum, Cochran, a philanthropist, civil liberties advocate and lawyer for high-profile clients like Sean “Puffy” Combs and Michael Jackson, discussed deficiencies in the American justice system.

Discussing the legacy of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, and what he described as his own struggles to bring justice and fair treatment to his clients, Cochran painted a picture of a justice system and society in which blacks and other minorities are still discriminated against.

Still, Cochran said he believed that “courts remain our best hopes” for justice. But, in a charge to a packed audience in the Ames Courtroom, he said that the courts would only fulfill that mission if all in the legal profession are willing “to go the extra mile in the pursuit of justice.”

Commenting on divisive issues of the day, from racial profiling to racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, Cochran called for a renewed sense of community and dialogue between the races. He also argued for greater empathy for those less privileged, stating that “none of us will be free ‘ til all of us are free.”

Cochran began his speech by reminding the audience of the visions of the civil rights leaders of a generation ago, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois. Cochran said those leaders probably would be “somewhat disheartened” at the state of race relations in the U.S. today.

Cochran argued that too much racism and injustice exists in America today. As an example, he said that minorities are still subjected to racial profiling and are stopped on highways disproportionately. He further decried the recent extension of profiling to Arabs and Arab-Americans in the aftermath of September 11. Cochran also said he was alarmed by the stiffer mandatory sentencing laws for crack cocaine, used more often by black Americans, as opposed to those for pure powder cocaine, used more often by white Americans.

To improve the current situation, Cochran said, Americans must acknowledge the existence of racism, which he called “covert Jim Crow.”

Cochran cited the disparate treatment of blacks, whites and Hispanics in the California juvenile justice system as one example of this phenomenon. Reading aloud statistics that he said demonstrated unequal treatment based on race, Cochran said such discrimination leads to fewer black youths becoming responsible, productive adults. He said this feeds a “vicious cycle” in the black community.

Nevertheless, Cochran insisted that he believes justice through the courts is possible through hard work and dedication.

He said one way he was pursuing legal justice is through a partnership with Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, two of his co-counselors in the Simpson case. Neufeld and Scheck have gained prominence by pioneering the Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing and other methods to prove the innocence of wrongly convicted felons. The Innocence Project has freed more than 100 innocent people, Cochran said.

The case that made Cochran famous came up only once: During the question-and-answer session, a student referred to O.J. Simpson by asking about a “former client who might have been guilty even though he was found innocent.” Cochran said he properly performed the job of a lawyer in an adversarial system and said he thought Simpson’s team had successfully made the case for reasonable doubt. He insisted that the case was not about race since “black juries convict black defendants every day in every city in America.” Instead, Cochran said, the case should be seen as an anomaly. He also emphasized that the worst police corruption scandal in Los Angeles’ history emerged shortly after the trial ended.

Speaking about the recently overturned conviction of two New York City police officers for attacking Abner Louima in a station house, Cochran, who represented Louima, said the most “tragic part of the case was that [the officers] thought they could get away with it.” He said that police failure to report crimes committed by fellow officers, the so-called “blue wall of silence,” remains a systemic problem in American law enforcement.

In conclusion, Cochran said that everyone can play a part in bringing forth justice. He recalled the tremendous accomplishments of Rosa Parks, a “simple seamstress,” who brought national attention to the injustices of the Jim Crow South. He said that Harvard students, whom he called “blessed,” have an even greater responsibility because, quoting the Bible, “Those to whom much is given, much is required.”

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