Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., 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 Tuesday. 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.
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.”
He won a $760,000 award in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Ron Settles, a black college football star who died in police custody in 1981. Cochran challenged police claims that Settles hanged himself in jail after a speeding arrest. The player’s body was exhumed, an autopsy performed and it revealed Settles had been choked.
His clients also included Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, who was tortured by New York police, and Tyisha Miller, a 19-year-old black woman shot to death by Riverside police who said she reached for a gun on her lap when they broke her car window in an effort to disarm her.