Leo Branton Jr., Activists’ Lawyer, Dies at 91
Published: April 27, 2013
Leo Branton Jr., a California lawyer whose moving closing argument in a racially and politically charged murder trial in 1972 helped persuade an all-white jury to acquit a black communist, the activist and academic Angela Davis, died on April 19 in Los Angeles. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by Howard Moore Jr., another lawyer who represented Ms. Davis.
Mr. Branton, a black veteran of World War II who served in a segregated Army unit, represented prominent black performers, including Nat King Cole and Dorothy Dandridge, argued cases on behalf of the Black Panthers and the Communist Party, and filed numerous cases alleging police abuse. But the case with which he was most closely associated was that of Ms. Davis.
“Friends of mine said we couldn’t get a fair trial here in Santa Clara County,” Mr. Branton told jurors in his final remarks, on June 1, 1972, in a courtroom in San Jose, Calif. “They said that we could not get 12 white people who would be fair to a black woman charged with the crimes that are charged in this case.”
Ms. Davis, a 28-year-old former instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles, was accused of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1970 death of a state judge who was shot with one of several weapons she had bought. The year before, Ms. Davis had lost her teaching job after she expressed support for the Communist Party. After the charges were filed, she became a fugitive, one of the F.B.I.’s 10 most wanted. She said the weapons had been stolen from her.
Her flight had been an important part of the prosecution’s case. But Mr. Branton, who had argued numerous cases of police abuse in the 1950s, urged jurors to view her behavior in the context of centuries of slavery, racism and abuse against blacks.
At one point he showed jurors a drawing of Ms. Davis bound in chains. Then he removed the drawing to reveal another showing her freed.
“Pull away these chains,” he said, “as I have pulled away that piece of paper.“
Some jurors cried, and after she was acquitted, so did Ms. Davis. She also hugged the jurors.
“Angela Davis Found Not Guilty by White Jury on All Charges,” said a headline in The New York Times on June 5, 1972.
Decades later, Mr. Branton said the case stood out to him not just because of the verdict or the distinctiveness of his final appeal, but also because of the defense’s preparations. During jury selection, defense lawyers hired psychologists to help them determine who in the jury pool might favor their arguments, an uncommon practice at the time, he said. They also hired experts who undermined the reliability of eyewitness accounts, which were important to the prosecution.
Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and defense lawyer who met Ms. Davis in 1970 when she was being detained before trial and he was an undergraduate at Stanford, said in an interview on Friday that Mr. Branton had emphasized to the jury “who she was as a person.”
“He didn’t want her convicted because of her race or her politics,” he said.
Mr. Branton was born on Feb. 17, 1922, in Pine Bluff, Ark., the oldest of five children. He received a bachelor’s degree from Tennessee State University in 1942 before serving in the Army. He earned his law degree at Northwestern University in 1948 and soon moved to California.
In 1952, Mr. Branton represented 14 members of the California Communist Party who were accused of advocating the overthrow of the government through force. They were convicted in lower courts, but the convictions were vacated by the United States Supreme Court in 1957.
His survivors include three sons, Leo L. Branton III, Tony Nicholas and Paul Nicholas; a brother; a sister; and five grandchildren. Geraldine Pate Nicholas, his wife of more than 50 years, died in 2006.
Mr. Branton began representing Nat King Cole in 1958 and eventually helped him secure ownership of his master recordings from Capitol Records, said Mr. Moore, his fellow lawyer in the Davis case. Many years later, Mr. Branton represented the estate of Jimi Hendrix until he and others were sued by members of the Hendrix family. The suit was dropped in 1995.
Mr. Moore said he first met Mr. Branton when they represented different clients in civil rights cases in Mississippi in the 1960s. Mr. Branton was already well known for his work in Hollywood and before the Supreme Court.
“Leo was good in his seat and on his feet,” Mr. Moore said. “He could perform in a courtroom in a trial, and then he could write an excellent brief. Then he could do transactional work. Many lawyers can do one but not the others.”