Sunday, May 11, 2014

Fred Cohn: "He was the best. He was a star."

     For some reason obituaries have a bad reputation, as the lowest rung of the newsroom pecking order. I guess that's from the day when they were obligatory renditions of the good works of ladies in the sewing club. But obituaries are allowed to be interesting nowadays, and I love learning about the life of someone I either didn't know or was just vaguely familiar with. When I first looked into this, I had no idea who Fred Cohn was—my connection was I knew his son Yale. What I'm most proud of is that when I phoned Ed Genson, I didn't know that he knew Cohn—I just guessed he probably did, and was right. Ditto for Paul Biebel. This story was researched and written between 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. Friday, including two trips down to the clip file in the basement of the building, the second because I had the wrong key the first time. Let's see a computer aggregator do that.

     If Fred Cohn was defending you, you were in trouble.
Fred Cohn and his wife Mary on their wedding day.
     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 Streater; 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.


  1. I worked as a receptionist for Mr Cohn in 1977. I had to work one Saturday and he let me bring my 3 yr. old daughter to work with me. He was a smart man. My liitle receptionist area was in view of The Merchandise Mart. I always wondered about Mr. Cohn and Mr. Ecules. RIP Mr. Cohn.

    1. Ihad the good fortune of working with Fred Julius, Joann,Larry, Joyce, Dennis, Carlos, Caroline J., and a host of memorable dedicated professionals who under Fred's stewardship defended the defenseless. It was.never about money. Fred's size was matched by his heart. Shalom F.

  2. I worked next door to the man for many years. If anyone was charged with clearing out his storage space, I apologize. Other than that, I wanted to know if anyone has a copy of his collection of short stories?

  3. I’m just reading this now, 2022. Fred represented me in several cases, one very serious, the others not so much. He was a great guy and I appreciate to this day his efforts on my behalf. Good bye, Fred. I am indebted to you. You saved my life.

  4. I went to John Marshall law school, and my first course was taught by him. Because I had a car at the time he came out the door at the same time I was going to my car, which is right across the street from John Marshall. He asked me for a ride and then when he found out I was from New York he offered me a part-time job starting the very next morning. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got to work with all those people at that time it was 1972.


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