Star power

Lawyer who sprang O.J. lends curious cachet to wrongly convicted

 

By sigcino moyo

There was an expectant buzz in the air as camera crews and scribes milled about the York Theatre, anxious for Johnnie Cochran's arrival. The fast-talking regal eagle now synonymous with a former football star named O.J. outrunning a double murder rap was in town last weekend to deliver the keynote at a conference sponsored by the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), the Toronto-based group dedicated to springing innocents from behind bars.By playing the star-power card, there's no doubt AIDWYC was banking on the Cochran mystique to attract some attention and, ergo, channel much-needed funds to its cause.

It's been a financial struggle for the organization, even after its much-publicized efforts helped win the release of David Milgaard, Clayton Johnson, Thomas Sophonow and Guy Paul Morin, among others.

AIDWYC's mailing list sits at well over 1,000, but paid membership tops out at about 200. A quick look at charity returns filed with Rev Can by the group's educational wing, the Jur-ed Foundation, shows paltry donations averaging less than $1,500 over the last two years.

Still, the recruiting of Cochran seems a tad curious. Right or wrong, he's still wearing the O.J. rap like the noose the Juice would have been squeezed in if he was poor -- in the public's mind, at least.

So why would donors wary of putting seed money behind AIDWYC in the first place, lest their rep be besmirched by an association with dubious cases, be any more likely to cough up now that the controversial Cochran's name has been linked to the organization's good works?

With due respect to Johnnie -- and he deserves a ton for his work on behalf of the disenfranchised pre- and post-O.J. -- it's just something to consider.

On the phone from the Ritz Carlton in St. Louis before his arrival in T.O., he tells me he's never dabbled in any Canadian legal doings before this gig.

"Actually, I've never been called before,'' he says. Cochran has eight different law offices, is litigating countless cases and commands big-league appearance fees. Everybody wants a piece of him. So how did he end up coming to T.O. on his own dime to speak at AIDWYC's conference?

Cochran does have a new book, A Lawyer's Life, to flog, but says he agreed to come in deference to Geronimo Pratt, the former Black Panther he helped get out of jail recently after a 27-year legal battle. More specifically, because of Pratt's ties to AIDWYC executive director Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the former boxer who, we all know by now, spent 22 years in jail for a triple murder he didn't commit. That and "The fact that AIDWYC has done so much for so many -- I couldn't even think of charging them," he explains.

At AIDWYC's third-floor King Street offices, I sit down with executive secretary and co-founder Win Wahrer a few days before the conference. A huge printer, fax machine, Interac terminal and computer dominate the cramped one-room freedom fortress. On a shelf against one wall are cards, letters and other tokens of appreciation from AIDWYC adoptees and their relatives. The phone is ringing off the hook.

AIDWYC is an offshoot of the six-person Justice for Guy Paul Morin Committee. Hurricane Carter was a pivotal player in the Morin saga, and he's been the public face of AIDWYC ever since. As Wahrer points out, Carter "can bring attention to a case that others couldn't. Everyone wants Rubin."

But the days when Carter devoted all his energies to AIDWYC are over.

"He's gotten extremely busy after his book and movie," Wahrer says. "Within that schedule he does whatever he can. Unfortunately, at 65 he still has to work for a living."

Carter and his story are still prominently featured in AIDWYC's promo material, but now he's more a personification of the group than its driving force. In fact, at the benefit concert for the conference, he makes a point of telling everyone that Wahrer is "the glue that holds AIDWYC together" and AIDWYVC director James Lockyer "the steam engine that keeps us driving forward."

My own encounter with the Hurricane during the Cochran presser leaves me baffled. "Chief Fantino -- I love that guy," Carter offers when I ask for his take on AIDWYC's potential philosophical clashes with The Man.

Meanwhile, there's no getting away from the fact that AIDWYC is cash poor. Gems aside, all manner of schlock, including an autographed Billy Ray Cyrus pic, is on the block at a silent auction held to help foot the bill for this conference.

Hopefully, some reinforcements are on the way, since AIDWYC director and lawyer James Lockyer has teamed with another lawyer, Phil Campbell, to form a firm dedicated to fighting wrongful convictions full-time. The sheer volume of work is daunting, though. The group has more cases under review than it can possibly keep up with -- 35 in Canada, 20 in the U.S. and hundreds in places as far away as New Zealand.

Wahrer leads me to a shared storage area, a space decidedly larger than the office itself, stacked with cases with no faces. "We've been very careful about the no's," says Wahrer. "We don't give up easily."

She cracks a cabinet and shows me stacks of files, some marked "Does not meet criteria."

"The biggest challenge is economic. It's really hard to find lawyers to do something for nothing."

It takes more than raising public consciousness to carry on AIDWYC's crucial crusade. Wahrer is even forced to gently put off a photographer over the phone who's jonesing for free conference access: "I'm sorry. We just have to sell some tickets. It's a fundraiser."

A few nights later, at the conference itself, Carter introduces Cochran as "that most unusual of creatures -- a lawyer that people really like." A gripping address is followed by a standing O. The vibe from Cochran's speech carries over to the VIP reception later, where revellers have all but forgotten the looming spectre of O.J. I grab my keepsake, an autographed copy of Cochran's book, and bounce.


      
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