Clash of the Titans
A Riverside Police Shooting Pits Johnnie Cochran Against Skip Miller – Finally
They are a crash course in contrasts. One is a bombastic media darling, a flamboyant courtroom orator who’s the star of a TV talk show on American justice; the other a deliberative, masterful legal craftsman, called in by major cities when the evidence is stacked against them.
It’s no surprise that either of the lawyers – Johnnie Cochran and Skip Miller – was hired for their latest case, which involves a messy police shooting of a sleeping woman. That they’re both on it is, by definition, news.
For the first time, Miller and Cochran are squaring off against each other in a high-profile case containing all of the elements the two trial attorneys have banked their careers on – a young black woman killed in a hail of bullets, a police department under fire, a city sued, a community in disarray.
If the case seems uniquely made for their talents, they also couldn’t be better experienced for it, having played leading roles in the defining legal clashes of the decade – many of which were overheated by charges of racial inequity and police misconduct.
Cochran, of course, is most famous for convincing a jury to acquit O.J. Simpson of murder charges in 1995. Throughout his career, he’s been a champion of minority clients, alleging police brutality and worse.
Presently, he’s in trial representing Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who alleges he was beaten and sexually tortured by white New York police officers after his arrest during a brawl outside a Brooklyn nightclub in 1997. The case has made national headlines, putting Cochran once again in the spotlight, and reuniting him with two of his co-counsel in the Simpson trial, attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld.
Louis Miller, known universally as Skip, has quietly made a name for himself representing the city of Los Angeles and other municipalities in a series of controversial cases, including when Rodney King brought a multimillion-dollar suit against the city for the videotaped beating he received from police officers after a traffic stop. Miller considers the case a win – despite a jury awarding King $3 million – because the demand had been $25 million, based on the visually graphic and nearly unforgettable nature of the evidence.
The city also called Miller in when former LAPD Police Chief Daryl Gates seemed poised to rescind his resignation. Gates had offered to give up his tenure following the 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles, which were sparked by the acquittal of the officers who beat King. Through a well orchestrated media campaign, Miller was able to secure for the city Gates’ much anticipated resignation.
‘”These are two very, very talented lawyers who have made their mark on different sides of the same coin,” says Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, also a former member of the L.A. City Council.
That coin has come to rest in Riverside, a smog-ridden town 60 miles due east of Los Angeles. It doesn’t take much to notice that the money is long since gone, along with the once-plentiful orange groves. The beaux arts county courthouse, built at the turn of the century to duplicate the facade of the 1900 Paris Exposition’s Grand Palace of Fine Arts, seems oddly out of place in a city overtaken by tract housing and strip malls.
So, too, do the news cameras and throngs of reporters make a strange sight, not to mention Miller and Cochran, all drawn here by the Dec. 28 police shooting of 19-year-old Tyisha Miller (no relation to Skip Miller) as she sat apparently unconscious in her locked car, with a loaded gun on her lap. Miller was shot 12 times – including four times in the head. All told, 23 bullets were fired, leaving her car looking like a prop for a Bonnie and Clyde movie.
Last week, Cochran filed a suit in U.S. district court in Los Angeles on behalf of Tyisha Miller’s family against the four officers involved in the shooting, and naming the officers’ supervising sergeant and the city of Riverside as co-defendants. The civil action seeks unspecified damages for wrongful death, assault and battery, infliction of emotional distress, negligence, negligent hiring, and three civil rights violations.
“This is a very important case. It’s a new day in Riverside,” says Cochran in an interview. “We are going to war. Enough is enough.”
In addition to energizing Cochran, Miller’s death has galvanized Riverside’s black residents, who say the police action was skewed by racism. National personalities such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton have come to Riverside several times to lend comfort and stake a moral claim in the controversy.
No one denies, not even the Riverside district attorney’s office, that police officers arriving on the scene after the shooting made racial slurs, but the city insists the officers’ decision to shoot had nothing to do with bias. Earlier this month, District Attorney Grover Trask announced he would file no criminal charges against the four officers, despite what he called a mistake in judgment – the officers’ decision to break the driver’s side window.
Even before the civil suit was filed, Skip Miller was called in by Riverside to assist in defending the municipality.
“There was no magic to it,” says Riverside City Attorney Stan Yamamoto. “We needed somebody who could deal with a personality like Mr. Cochran, and someone who’s been in the trenches with high-profile cases. We knew the services we required would far exceed simply a trial attorney. It was clear that Skip had all of the right experience and temperament.”
Miller is a partner in Los Angeles-based Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil and Shapiro, a firm with more than 100 attorneys well known for its litigation prowess and political connections. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was once of counsel to the firm and sold Christensen, Miller his lucrative private practice when he went into municipal politics. Robert Shapiro, who orchestrated Simpson’s defense team, is another name partner at the firm.
Cochran is leader of the band at his small Los Angeles firm, which recently allied with a Southern firm to become Cochran, Cherry, Givens, Smith & Ferrer, with offices in Alabama and Georgia, and a new outpost in New York City. A handful of attorneys work in the L.A. office, known as the Law Offices of Johnnie Cochran Jr. Firmwide, there are about 40 attorneys.
Cochran, who grew up in Shreveport, La., took a job as a deputy L.A. city attorney after graduating in the early 1960s from Loyola Law School at Loyola Marymount University. Cochran left the city job for private practice in 1966, and soon was representing many minority clients who alleged they were victims of police brutality in the 1965 Watts riots. His first benchmark case: representing the family of a young black man, Leonard Deadwyler, who was rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital when he was pulled over and subsequently killed by police fire.
Although Cochran lost the civil case in the Deadwyler matter, he made a lasting impression with his courtroom oratory. He didn’t lose in 1981, when he represented the family of Ron Settles, a football star at California State University-Long Beach who was found hanging in a jail cell after being arrested for speeding. Cochran disputed that Settles had committed suicide and forced an exhumation and new autopsy, after which the jury found that Settles had most likely died from a police choke hold. The Settles family was awarded $760,000.
Los Angeles legal luminaries are watching the Riverside case with special interest, not only because of its social implications, but also because of the tug-of-wills between Miller and Cochran.
Miller, considered a quiet legal craftsman, is quick to point out that he’s lost less than a handful of cases, and most of those were during his first years in practice. Miller, who grew up in Chicago, did his undergraduate work at the University of Denver. Upon graduation, he followed his childhood sweetheart to Southern California, attending UCLA’s law school. Upon taking his first job at a now-defunct litigation firm, he begged to be allowed to do appointed work. That way, he would be assured of extensive trial experience.
It was in those early days that Miller began crafting his bulldog-like style, a mode of operating he continues to perfect. Cochran, meanwhile, is considered near-to-perfect in his oratory powers and his ability to drop into a trial and persuade a jury. “They are both friends of mine, and are very different, so it will be an interesting confrontation,” says Yaroslavsky. “It is like UCLA vs. Houston in 1969 when both teams were undefeated,” he continues. “In addition to being a very gifted lawyer, Johnnie is a very dynamic orator, as the whole country now knows, whereas Skip is less of a personality and lets the law do the talking for him. Skip gets his teeth into a case and doesn’t let go. He’s not as prone to using as much of the rhetorical tools that are available as Johnnie is.”
One challenge for Cochran is his hectic, fame-bred schedule, which includes hosting Johnnie Cochran Tonight, a half-hour program that runs Monday through Friday on Court TV. Due to this pressing commitment, Cochran relies heavily on his firm to do much of the work in preparing a case, and particularly on Greg Ferrer in Los Angeles.
Terry Christensen, managing partner of Christensen, Miller, says he too is friends with both Cochran and Miller. He adds that he didn’t give a second thought when Miller – who considers Christensen a mentor – accepted the offer to take on the Tyisha Miller case and oppose Cochran.
“It did mean that the case would stay high profile, and it does mean it will raise the stakes, but I think he [Miller] chose a good case. Skip can handle a high-profile case in a low-profile way,” says Christensen.
“This is the kind of case that is going to be, on first impression, very, very strong for the plaintiff. Then you do your homework and bit by bit, piece by piece, demonstrate the essential propriety of what happened,” Christensen adds. “In a way, it’s an ideal case for both of them. Johnnie gets to be dramatic and have a very big opening statement. It’s an ideal for Skip because he’s a craftsman.”
If Cochran is known for his power of persuasion, then Miller is seen as being able to calmly point out the weakness of his opponent.s case and the legal strengths of his own.
Miller’s Century City office is crammed with memorabilia from past and present cases. And while his cases have mainly been won on the strength of his legal reasoning, Miller is not above making waves in the courtroom.
Most recently, he drew the ire of U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts, who was presiding over consolidated lawsuits filed against the LAPD’s Special Investigations Section. Miller is representing the city of Los Angeles in the various actions. The suits allege that the special police unit allows suspects to commit crimes, thus provoking gunfire. Two of the suits stemmed from a 1995 holdup in Newbury Park, in which one robber was killed and another seriously wounded. The other suits resulted from a 1997 robbery at a Northridge bar, in which three of four occupants of a getaway car were killed by SIS officers.
On April 15, Letts disqualified himself, stating he was unable to tolerate “outright falsehoods” propagated by the defense team. Miller had been trying to remove Letts from the two cases against the elite police unit, arguing that the Judge was biased against police officers. Miller says he wasn’t personally offended by Letts’ attack on him. “We believed he was biased. He’s said police were all untruthful. If a judge stereotypes, he should remove himself,” he says.
Like Cochran, Miller is deft at navigating emotionally charged waters, such as when he successfully represented L.A. City Councilman Nate Holden on charges of sexual harassment. Other memorable notations on Miller’s thick resume include representing Beverly Hills in a civil suit challenging alleged racial profiling by police, as well as winning for the city of Los Angeles the dismissal of a $10 million religious freedom suit brought by Robert Vernon, former assistant LAPD police chief.
Miller likes to note that he’s handled any number of other complex matters – corporate and otherwise – such as successfully representing rock star Rod Stewart in a palimony claim.
“I never lose my focus. My focus is on the judge, the jury and the court-room. My motto – have gun, will travel.” Miller says. “I’m looking forward with relish to going up against Johnnie Cochran. He’s a very capable trial attorney.”
Cochran, likewise, speaks well of his latest courtroom adversary. “Skip is an able lawyer,” he says. “It will be interesting. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a genuine guy.”
“They [the city of Riverside] are going to need able representation,” he adds.
These days, Cochran splits his time between Los Angeles and New York City, a commute took up two years ago on launching his television show. Much of the time, the show is taped in New York. When he has to be in Los Angeles for legal matters, Cochran tapes the show at a small Hollywood studio.
For a recent taping, Cochran arrived 15 minutes before airtime – early for him. “Show business is my life,” he jokes as a makeup artist gives him a powder.
As a television host, Cochran says he is careful not to engage in dialogue regarding one of his own cases. Considering the show is shot live, he seems a television natural – professional and unflappable, in steering the debate of various guests about current legal matters. During commercial breaks, he banters with the producers in New York and takes quick sips of an orange soda he keeps discreetly out of view of the cameras.
The subject of this particular show is close to his heart: racial injustice in the juvenile system. Cochran has no trouble mustering an emotional tone for his scripted opening, as he’s become an expert on the evils of racial profiling. On a personal note, he says he hasn’t forgotten being pulled over for no good reason by an L.A. police officer when he was working in the city attorneys office.
In the courtroom, however, Cochran says it remains critical that he keep his emotions in check, lest the law and the facts get lost. “I try very hard. You have to stay above the fray, rationed and reasoned,” He says.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why juries like Cochran and Miller. If success has made them grandiose, they keep that grandiosity well out of sight. Like Cochran, Miller is convincing and quick to the point, whatever that point might be. Miller also is sporting a new look – for the first time in his professional life, he’s not wearing glasses, due to corrective laser eye surgery.
In the case of Tyisha Miller’s death, however, Miller is going to need all the considerable legal and persuasive tools he has at his disposal. Even some of Miller’s most avid supporters say Cochran holds the edge going into trial, due both to Cochran’s prominence and the tragic circumstances, of the case.
“Everything is on Johnnie’s side. You just can’t justify shooting someone 12 times while they are asleep,” says a prominent Los Angeles politician. “It’s almost indefensible.”
According to detailed records of an investigation conducted by the Riverside district attorney’s office, four Riverside police officers were called to a gas station at the corner of Central and Magnolia streets after two of Tyisha Miller’s friends placed a 911 call, saying their friend was passed out in her car with the radio blaring. The officers,three of whom were 25 years old or younger, were unable to rouse Miller, who would later register a blood-alcohol level well above the legal limit.
In the next few minutes, the officers decided to break the front passenger window and retrieve the gun, concerned that Miller was possibly having a seizure, according to the district attorney’s investigation. When that attempt failed, 23-year-old Daniel Hotard told his fellow officers he would break the driver’s side window with a baton. As he broke the window and reached in the car, he apparently was hit with a piece of glass and fell to the ground, calling out that he had been shot.
At the same time, Hotard’s fellow officers, who said they’d seen Miller reach for her gun, opened fire. Rolling over on the ground, Hotard also began shooting. After the initial round of gunfire ceased, the officers told investigators, Miller moved again. Once again, they began shooting. All told, the officers fired off 23 bullets, 12 of which hit Miller.”I tell you what, I relish the thought of trying this one. They [the police department]need to be exposed,” says Cochran. “Iwant to make sure that Tyisha Miller didn’t die in vain.”
For his part, Miller says he will be able to convince a jury to decide the case on the facts and the law, which is that the Riverside police officers responded appropriately to a situation where a loaded weapon was involved. “There will be some real surprises. It’s not all as it appears,” he says.
The city of Riverside also has hired Los Angeles-based Sitrick & Co., a media consulting firm specializing in damage control. Mike Sitrick, founder of the firm, also is a longtime friend of Miller’s.
Even in such a high-profile case, with the accompanying rhetoric, legal observers believe Miller and Cochran also are skilled negotiators, neither of whom would view a settlement as a defeat. “Both Johnnie and Skip are passionate warriors, but they also are pragmatic,” says Yaroslavsky. “It would be quite a scene to see them in that chess match, but my gut tells me that if there’s a way to settle, they will. Their egos are not crying out for another case.”
Pamela McClintock is a staff writer at
California Law Week. Her e-mail address