Looking back on a fallen friend

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 3, 2005

“About two months ago, Johnnie (Cochran) and I got kicked out of court in Oklahoma, federal court,” attorney J.L. Chestnut said while sitting behind his desk overlooking the swollen Alabama River Friday afternoon.

Chesnut is at home in his beautifully decked out office that he shares with the partners in his law firm, Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders and Pettway. He is talking about the death of his friend and colleague, the world-famous lawyer, Johnnie Cochran.

Though the two both came up from the Deep South to find success in the law during roughly the same era, they only met after the O.J. Simpson case when Cochran became America’s most famous- and in some circles infamous- attorney.

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Any interview about Cochran invariably must turn to the O.J. trial.

Chestnut knows it-and as if to get it out of the way- answers the question before it is asked.

“People often ask -including folks in my family- what was Johnnie’s views about O.J.’s guilt or innocence,” Chestnut said, “and the fact of the matter is that is not something that would interest a criminal defense lawyer. Our job is to make certain that no one is convicted except the state proves their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In all the myriad conversations I had with Johnnie about the O.J. Simpson trial, not one involved whether he did it. Johnnie knew that I knew damn well knew he did it.”

Chestnut is a master storyteller and he has stories to tell on Cochran.

It takes relatively few prompts and he is off and running.

Cochran -it seems- had a love of spicy food and J.L.’s wife Vivian makes a spicy gumbo/Brunswick Stew mixture that captured the Louisiana native’s heart and more importantly his stomach.

“Johnnie has called me from all around the United States wanting to know what Vivian is cooking for dinner,” Chestnut said.

Because Cochran was such a fan, Chestnut told him how the famous jazz-trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was similarly affected.

After getting a taste in Selma, every time Gillespie saw Chestnut he’d holler even from the stage to make sure J.L. brought some with him.

“I told Johnnie that story and Johnnie took up where Dizz left off,” Chestnut said. “We were always talking about that hot stew.”

There was-of course-more for the two lawyers to discuss than stew.

They worked together on a reparations litigation team of about 20 lawyers that work cases across the United States.

The Oklahoma case was one of those.

“In the late 1920’s there was a little town in Oklahoma City – (a) little black town one of the richest and most progressive towns in the country – and whites burned it to the ground, hundreds of blacks were killed, terrible ordeal,” Chestnut said. “A few years ago the state of Oklahoma officially apologized for the tragedy and made public some of the records of the official investigation and as usual these records show complicity on the part of law enforcement and other people. So we promptly sued.”

The judge- however- threw the case out saying they were 40 years too late.

Chestnut- with his background of civil rights litigation- demanded an appeal. Some of the team didn’t agree.

Cochran was the mediator.

“For some very sensitive reasons a number of our white colleagues didn’t want to pursue that, but the way Johnnie handled that they finally agreed and now we have the appeal going,” Chesnut said. “Johnnie dealt with it as a matter of sheer legal justice and not a lot of name-calling and finger pointing as I was doing.

Had it been left to me there wouldn’t have been any appeal and we might have destroyed the team. That example says so much about Johnnie Cochran. In addition to being a fine, almost in ways instinctive trial lawyer, he was every bit the gentleman at all times.”

Chestnut’s respect for the man is obvious but it is also clear that they shared something of a mutual fascination.

“He had the same quality I saw in Martin Luther King of being at ease with governors and presidents but also with some kid on the basketball court with his pants almost down to his knees, Johnnie was equally at ease,” Chesnut said. “I am one of the people that talked him out of practicing criminal law; I had already stopped and helped convince him that he was wasting valuable times and skills on a merry-go-round that was going nowhere.”

That Chesnut had given up criminal law fascinated Cochran as well.

“(For) somebody coming out of celebrity Los Angeles this is a kind of indoctrination into another world, I could see Johnnie growing.

He’d have a thousand questions that he would ask. If he asked me once he asked me 10 times why did I give up the criminal law because that had been his life,” Chestnut said. “I think he was intrigued by the fact that almost 20 years ago I bid goodbye to the criminal law and didn’t even look back at it.

Every opportunity he got he was trying to explore that and why.”

Much of that mutual fascination seems to come from the very different ways they succeeded in the law.

“The kind of debates that I would have with somebody like Johnnie is that virtually all of his life he struggled to become a leading light within the establishment. All of my adult life has been spent fighting the establishment. So there was a constant debate between us over how you approach a case in concrete terms,” Chestnut said. “Johnnie Cochran would wind up representing Michael Jackson, there is no way under the sun that I would wind up representing Michael Jackson in a criminal case.

But I wound up representing 20,000 poor black farmers all over the United States.

It is highly unlikely that Johnnie Cochran would end up in that situation though he was utterly fascinated by the whole case. The reason is the difference in who we are and how we came to be and how we see life and what it’s all about.”

Chesnut believes the backlash from the O.J. trial hurt Cochran- though he wouldn’t admit it.

Chestnut added that the way Cochran overcame those critics to be accepted in the court of celebrity was a surprise.

“Much of white America blamed him for representing O.J. One of the most satisfying things for him -though he would deny this-was the degree to which he overcame that,” Chestnut said. “The more America got a look at this soft-spoken shrewd- almost intuitive-trial lawyer the more it learned how different he really was from the image they had come to know from the Simpson trial.”

That soft-spoken nature may be the trait that Chesnut retains even now that Cochran is gone.

“Every time- which is often- that I’m about to lose my temper I can hear Johnnie, ‘Hold on J.L. we still got some hours to go,'” Chesnut said. “I can hear that, almost feel him pulling the back of my coat, ‘Just wait.

It’ll work out.'”