Dinner With Johnnie | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Dinner With Johnnie

Local lawyers turn out in force to honor O.J.'s advocate


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By Bonnie McGrath

Lawyers Johnnie Cochran Jr. and Philip Corboy Sr. were standing in Corboy's massive walk-in closet. They were surrounded by at least 15 feet of gorgeously rich wood shelves and drawers and racks. And all of Corboy's clothes and shoes. Bears defensive end Alonzo Spellman stood just outside the closet chatting with a couple of women at the foot of Corboy's bed.

Cochran told Corboy how neat he was. Corboy said he was a type A personality, needing to have things orderly. Cochran said when he grew up he hoped to have as many clothes as Corboy, who was wearing a suit coat in as bright a blue as anything Cochran wore during the Simpson trial. Cochran said he was impressed with the fact that Corboy had a phone in his closet--and that he'd like to get one too. "My wife has a jack in her closet, but that's it," said Cochran.

Cochran had been greeting guests in the foyer of Corboy's Water Tower duplex when Corboy, the famous personal injury specialist, asked whether he wanted to see the rest of the place. Corboy squired him away from guests such as attorneys Pat Tuite, Ed Genson, and Bill Kunkle, Illinois appellate judge Morton Zwick, and many other Chicago legal giants. They'd come to the elegant dinner party being thrown by Corboy and his wife, Chicago Public Library commissioner Mary Dempsey, to pay homage to O.J. Simpson's lawyer. Cochran and Corboy ended up in the closet.

Exactly a year ago to the day, Cochran had been cross-examining Los Angeles police detective Tom Lang. He asked him about his knowledge of throat slashings in drug-related killings, suggesting through his leading questions that Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman were killed by drug dealers, not his client.

While Corboy and Cochran were in the upstairs closet, guests kept arriving downstairs on the 65th floor, hanging their coats out in the hallway and coming in to drink wine and serve themselves exquisite poached salmon and broiled lamb chops out of huge silver chafing dishes. Tables were set up in all the rooms on the first floor, rooms lined with paintings and carpeting rife with geometric designs. And Biedermeier furniture. Guests table-hopped while they ate and drank.

Waiters from a catering company were walking around with pretty trays of finger food--such as tiny potatoes doused with sour cream and caviar. One waiter asked a woman whether she'd ever been to the Salaam restaurant owned and operated by the Nation of Islam. He said he worked there part-time and thought she looked familiar. No, she said, she'd never been there but had heard the food was good and that it was extremely clean. The waiter said he hoped that Cochran would eat there before he returned to Los Angeles.

Cochran emerged from Corboy's bedroom and was cornered by personal injury attorney Patricia Bobb. Early in Bobb's career she'd successfully prosecuted Patty Columbo, who with her boyfriend had murdered her parents and brother in their suburban home. Bobb asked Cochran for an autograph for her young daughter, who had told her friends all week that her mom would be having dinner with Cochran this evening. He obliged, telling the little girl in writing to "stay in school" before signing his name.

Nearby, attorney Pat Maloney, a friend of Corboy's, said he came all the way from San Antonio to honor Cochran. Maloney said that Cochran would be speaking later this year to the Inner Circle of Advocates, a group of one hundred of "the best trial lawyers in the country." He'd be the first black speaker in the group's history. He said Cochran's application for actual entry to the group was in, and even though he was president he couldn't guarantee admission--but he was confident Cochran would be admitted.

"He is a great trial lawyer," said Maloney, adding that he came from San Antonio because he admires so much the job Cochran did for Simpson. "It was advocacy at its apex. Indisputably it's the most competent job I've ever seen, and I had to tell him so."

Judge Zwick said, "The proof is in the pudding. There was a good result--and that's all that matters." Then he walked away to find his date.

In another room George Cotsirilos, who had defended members of the Blackstone Rangers street gang years ago, said Cochran's job for Simpson was the "best job of lawyering I've seen in a long time. I'm not talking about justice. Just lawyering. I waited for him to trip--but he didn't. He's a good professional. He was out to win within the rules."

One of the guests told Cotsirilos, "Your level of civility was 20 notches higher, George."

"Well," Cotsirilos answered, "Judge Ito, you know, [Cochran] was his boss....[Ito] was intimidated by him--and he took advantage of that. He took advantage of everything. I never saw anyone do that."

"George, you were smoother, more moralistic."

"Everyone has a style," Cotsirilos answered. "His was effective."

"George, you always won because you were a gentleman. You destroyed people and they didn't know they were getting destroyed."

In another room, Cochran sat at a card table with Peter Bynoe. They chatted across the table from one another, each with his arms crossed, looking into each other's eyes. Occasionally, one or the other would chuckle. Cochran's wife, Dale Mason Cochran, a marketing research analyst, chatted warmly with nearby guests.

"We've gotten such bad press," she said. "I thought we'd get a bad reception here but we didn't." Dale Cochran explained that in addition to that morning's press conference at the Chicago Bar Association, and a bar association luncheon honoring Cochran at the Palmer House (it was attended by a thousand people), they'd been to a Bulls game the night before and had a great time.

"He loves sports--and everyone came up to him wanting to shake his hand, and they asked for autographs. I was scared, but we've been very accepted in Chicago," she said.

Judge Zwick passed by and told her she must be glad to have her husband back. She said she was. "No one understands," said Zwick, "how hard it is when a spouse is on trial. You ask 'You want some potatoes, dear?' and the answer is 'No, there's this witness I need to get.'"

Dale Cochran chuckled and agreed that that's exactly how it was. "And it went on for 13 months!" she exclaimed.

"Eighty percent of marriages don't last that long," Zwick answered. He went on making small talk--and ended up telling her that at one point in his judicial career attorneys for the city of Chicago disliked him so much because of his rulings that they threw darts at his picture.

"We never did that to Judge Ito," she said.

Someone asked whether they ever did it to Marcia Clark. She stopped laughing and said no. They thought Marcia Clark was just fine, she said. Just fine.

Cochran rose from the card table and said to a guest, "You look familiar. How do I know you?"

"You look familiar, too," the man retorted. "I saw you on TV. But I didn't know you could see me." The two men laughed.

The party broke up early and Corboy and his wife began saying good-bye to the guests. Standing in his kitchen as the caterers cleaned up, Corboy said Cochran was great to take time out of his busy schedule to visit Chicago. "Since the case, he's had 25 offers a week to speak. He's very selective," said Corboy. "But he accepted his professional responsibility to speak to lawyers--a lot of lawyers--this afternoon.

"He's a good, warm, gentle man," said Corboy. "He tells great stories and he's great to be around. He promised me he'd speak [to the CBA]--win, lose, or draw last July. And when the case was over he called back and said yes, he remembered, and he'd be here.

"As far as this dinner, I invited my friends--practicing trial lawyers who love and admire and love to be around successful trial lawyers. And Johnnie Cochran is the most successful lawyer in the country. He's the most popular lawyer on the planet. I wanted my friends--lawyers and pals--good lawyers to converse and meet with the wonderful Mr. Cochran and his wife this evening."

Before leaving, several guests wanted to have a picture taken with Cochran. As the camera snapped, one woman told a group of departing guests, "The most famous black man in America is in town."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul McGrath.

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