Attorney for Hampton dies, ‘was the best’

Written By By Neil Steinberg Posted: 05/10/2014, 10:39am
Array Fred Hampton speaks in 1969. | Sun-Times Library

If Fred Cohn was defending you, you were in trouble.

Not for any lack of skill on the part of the University of Chicago-trained criminal defense lawyer.

“He was the best,” said Timothy Evans, chief judge of Cook County Circuit Court. “He was a star.”

But Cohn represented some of the toughest cases, such as the 1969 robbery trial of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. If you were facing the death penalty, if you were caught with the shotgun smoking in your hands, if you had killed a cop — or been beaten by one — you wanted Fred Cohn on your side.

“A singularly outstanding lawyer, an excellent appellate lawyer,” said Judge Paul Biebel, presiding judge of the Criminal Division of the Cook County Circuit Court. “He had a great knowledge of criminal law, and was one of the last of the old breed who would take cases simply because they felt this person needed to be defended.”

Cohn, 75, died April 30 at Evanston Hospital after a long struggle with cancer.

He was born in Brooklyn, came to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago and then graduated from its law school in 1962. He went to work for the Cook County public defender’s office, leaving in the mid-1960s to work for flamboyant criminal defense lawyer Julius “Lucky” Echeles.

“He was Julius’ guy,” said Ed Genson, a top Chicago criminal defense lawyer, who called Cohn “a lawyer’s lawyer” and a wonderful man with a gift for friendship.

“We were sort of brothers,” Genson said.

A big, round, affable man, Cohn approached his work as a vocation, and often tried to rehabilitate and reform his clients, helping them get jobs and turn their lives around.

“He was such a good man,” Genson said. “He felt sorry for everybody he represented. Everybody charged was a victim, every person he wanted to protect.”

After the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in June, 1964, Cohn went South and worked as a volunteer civil rights attorney for the summer.

“He believed everyone had a right to vote,” said his wife of 42 years, Mary Cohn. “He knew the situation in the South and felt he could contribute. He felt very strongly about civil rights his whole life.”

The two met in Evanston — Mary Derra was a nurse from Streator; he was running a legal aid office on the same floor as the visiting nurses association office where she worked. The nurses were always good for coffee and cigarettes, and Cohn would pop in for both, eventually taking his future wife to an open house at the Gateway Foundation rehab facility.

“We knew zip about drug addicts,” she said. Cohn was a fervent opponent of drug use who once threw a pair of drug dealers out of a party after he recognized them.

Cohn was Hampton’s attorney at the time he was killed, and represented other Black Panther Party members as well.

He also taught criminal law and procedure at John Marshall Law School.

“He was one of my instructors at John Marshall,” Evans said. “He was committed to every avenue of justice you can imagine. He was a trial lawyer, primarily on the defense side but was committed to fairness on all sides. He was my good friend for 40 years. He had a big heart. ”

Cohn lived in Edgewater and was involved in the community — he was chairman of the Edgewater-Uptown Building Task Force, trying to keep up housing standards. He was known to help neighbors with their legal problems for free, or in return for baked goods, home repair and stuffed peppers.

Genson said that, during the unrest surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he witnessed Cohn trying to calm the participants.

“At one end of Grant Park, the policemen were on one side, the demonstrators on the other, and there was Fred in the middle, screaming that they should all sit down and negotiate,” said Genson. “And then they charged. For the life of me, I can’t understand why he didn’t get hurt. He was trying to negotiate. That was Fred. He didn’t want anybody to hurt each other.”

“In lieu of flowers, do a mitzvah,” said his son Yale, using the Yiddish word for “good deed.” “Take someone you love to movies and ice cream. That’s what he would do.”

Survivors beside his wife, Mary, and son, Yale, include daughter Kate. The memorial service is private.

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