The call came several times from the stage: Will all the celebrity clients Johnnie Cochran Jr. represented please rise?
O.J. Simpson, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and others in the star-studded audience stood up and were applauded by a packed house Wednesday at the cavernous West Angeles Cathedral.
But speaker after speaker at the funeral said the lawyer’s real A-list of clients included what Cochran once called the “No Js” — ordinary black Americans profiled by police or fired because of their race.
“You would’ve had to be someone stopped by a cop only because of your skin color to know why we love Johnnie Cochran,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“We didn’t clap when the acquittal of Simpson came for O.J. We were clapping for Johnnie,” Sharpton told the throng that ranged from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Michael Jackson and his attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr.
“We were clapping because for decades our brothers, our cousins, our uncles had to stand in the well with no one to stand up for them. And finally a black man came and said, ‘If it don’t fit — you must acquit.”’
‘If it doesn't fit, you must acquit’
The variation on Cochran's famous line — “If it doesn't fit, you must acquit” — drew a roar from audience members who showed up to pay their respects to Cochran, who died March 29 of an inoperable brain tumor at his home in Los Angeles. He was 67.
Colorful and eloquent, Cochran became a legal superstar after helping clear Simpson during a sensational murder trial in which he uttered the famous “if it doesn’t fit” quote — a reference to a glove found at the murder scene.
The line was on the back of T-shirts being sold for $10 outside the church, where 5,000 people were expected to attend the funeral. The shirts had a picture of Cochran on the front with the words: “Freedom and justice.”
“Johnnie fought for his clients,” Simpson told reporters outside the cathedral. “He was just a good friend, a good Christian man and a great lawyer.”
Michael Jackson, who came from Santa Barbara County with lawyers who are defending him on child molestation charges, smiled as he left the service and said, “It was incredible.”
Likened to Thurgood Marshall
The range of mourners reflected Cochran’s work in high-profile civil rights cases and high-glamour trials. Also paying respects were such celebrities as Stevie Wonder and Earvin “Magic” Johnson and civil rights leaders Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“Johnnie was to this era what Thurgood Marshall was to the era before him,” Sharpton said, referring to the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice. “The press does not understand why thousands are here.”
Wonder sang a song titled “I’ll Be Your Shelter In The Rain” and paused to say, “Johnnie, I’ll never forget your heart. For so many on this planet, you were the shelter in the rain.”
Also among mourners were other members of Simpson’s legal “dream team” including Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, as well as actress Angela Bassett and Rep. Maxine Waters.
Former Cochran client Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was tortured by New York police, arrived with Sharpton. Cochran’s other high-profile clients included football great Jim Brown, actor Todd Bridges and rappers Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg.
Combs recounted begging Cochran for help after his arrest in 1999 in a Manhattan criminal case. He was later acquitted of the charges, which stemmed from a nightclub shooting.
‘He saved my life’
“All I wanted was to be able to walk like Johnnie Cochran,” he said to laughter. “Johnnie Cochran had a smile that would make you want to go get your teeth cleaned, so light, so beautiful. Johnnie was a gift from God.”
“He came and he saved my life. Because of him I get to see my kids, I get to see my mother and I get to make music and be here with you all today,” Combs said.
In 1997, Cochran won freedom for Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, a former Black Panther who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The attorney called the moment “the happiest day of my life practicing law.”
“We’ve known him for representing O.J. and Michael, but he was bigger and better than that,” Magic Johnson said outside. “He represented people you’ve never heard of.”
Before entering the cathedral, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown said Cochran was among “the great warriors who really used the legal system to gain a measure of freedom and justice for people. Johnnie was a symbol of that for all of us.”
Cochran’s burial was to be private and at an undisclosed location.