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When the annals of great legal scholars are written, a special place has to be allocated for Leo Branton Jr. the prominent civil rights and entertainment attorney. Though he does handle a heavy caseload at present, he is the legal scholar from whom many still seek sage legal counsel and guidance, and he reportedly lends his pro bono services to causes, people in need and cases with relevant social issues. Branton’s career is filled with milestones and legal “firsts” including a triple “AAA” client list of Hollywood celebrities, the estate of Jimi Hendrix and Ruth Washington, former publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. He has been referred to as a “Black Perry Mason,” but that is a misnomer. Branton is the real deal; he is the standard. Perry Mason is fiction. It is Perry Mason who should be referred to as the “White Leo Branton.”
He is known as a great litigator who performs legal magic, a description of his stellar performances while rendering arguments before juries—some of them “lily white.” One of his most celebrated cases was “People versus Angela Davis.” His successful closing arguments in that case is one of the cases that will forever be remembered in (legal) history and it is definitively used as an instructional tool in law schools throughout the country. In 2005, Professor Charles Ogletree hosted and moderated a panel of Davis’ brothers and the attorneys at her famous trial, including Branton. One of the highlights of the event was Branton’s reenactment of his closing statement, where he asked an all-White jury to “imagine they were Black” to explain Davis’ flight, one of the core issues of the prosecution’s case.
No story about Branton can be properly told without reference to the Davis case which lasted several months. It was the trial of the century before the “other” trial of the century. Professor Davis, a young Black woman, was charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, and Branton was called in to defend her. His closing arguments zoomed in on one of the most significant pieces of evidence: her flight from the area of the crime which the prosecution argued showed a “consciousness of guilt.” The trial was a focal point during the Civil Rights Era and it served as a standard for modern day litigation, pioneering the use of the media, jury consultants and highlighting the unreliability of eyewitnesses.
Branton used the history of Blacks in America—a fact that was prominently displayed in the courtroom—there was not a single Black person sitting in the jury box. This was Santa Clara County, California, 1972. (While defending a Black serviceman, a member of the U. S. Air Force, charged with the murder of a White couple in 1951, Branton challenged the jury system in Riverside County, California which eventually led to the selection of that county’s first Black juror).
In the “Davis” case, he told the jury, “My colleague, Howard Moore, has called attention to the fact that there is not one Black person sitting in that jury box. You might not think that is important, but I tell you that it is. I mention this subject first because I am going to talk about something for a few minutes which to you, as White Americans, might be difficult to understand unless you have an appreciation for what it means to be Black in this country. But I don’t think that I would be mistaken if I said that not many of you in the totality of your lives have ever been close enough to Black people to know what it means.” Branton successfully defended Davis and after about three-and-a-half months, she was acquitted of all charges.
He was born in 1922 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from Tennessee State University (TSU) in 1942. After serving in the U.S. Army for three years, Branton received his law degree in 1948 from Northwestern University Law School following which he moved to California. Since there were no African American law firms, he started his own private practice. He practiced law for about fifty-two years and during that time he would sometimes lend his legal talents to the Civil Rights Movement, usually in the South.
As stated above, Branton would sometimes partner with other lawyers to maximize his courtroom skills especially when the case at hand was widely publicized. He worked with attorney Ben Margolis in defending members of the Communist Party in the 1950s accused of advocating the overthrow of the government. With attorney Crispus Attucks Wright, he defended Bucky Walker, the Black serviceman against the murder of a White couple. And of course, attorney Moore in the Davis case.
During the turbulent 60s, Branton was also involved in many high-profiled cases including the defense of 13 members of the Black Panther Party who claimed they were the victims of brutality by the Los Angeles Police Department, and other lesser known clients whom he was just as vigorous in defending as he did the more well-known ones.
Branton received many awards for his exemplary work from the City of Los Angeles, the California State Senate, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Brotherhood Crusade. In 1979, the Brotherhood Crusade honored Branton as one of the Pioneers of Black Legal Leadership along with other legal scholars such as Justices Wiley Manuel and Vaino Spencer; attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Charles Lloyd; and Judge Earl Broady Sr. He was selected for establishing a level of excellence in the legal field and for providing unparalleled leadership in fighting for true and equal justice under the law.
Branton has been featured in numerous books, particularly ones about Hollywood celebrities. Some of the books include “Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy” by Harry Shapiro, “Dorothy Dandridge” by Donald Bogle and “The Morning Break: The Trial of Angela Davis” by Bettina Aptheker
In addition, TSU proudly boasts a recorded version of Branton on its website, as one of its most accomplished alumnae with the following outline: “Individuals who have made noteworthy contributions to society while assisting in the growth and success of the university. Ninety forty-two graduate, Leo Branton Jr., litigated some of the most celebrated civil rights cases in American history. After establishing the first Black-owned law practice in California, he served Nat King Cole, Dorothy Dandridge, the Platters and other well-known African American celebrities. But his own claim to fame was his defense of lesser-known Americans. His career defining case was the successful defense of civil rights activist, Angela Davis, which garnered nationwide attention in 1972. Attorney Leo Branton, a history maker.”
His colorful career is punctuated with legendary cases other attorneys merely dream about. Branton crossed legal swords with a giant New York music corporation in the New York Supreme Court, and he also went up against the United States government in the U. S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in 1985.
Branton is the oldest the five children of Leo Branton Sr. and Pauline Wiley. One of his brothers, the late Wiley Branton, also distinguished himself as a legal scholar; he was the dean of Howard University Law School and a colleague of Thurgood Marshall. His wife, the late Geraldine Branton, was just as active in the community as Branton was as a lawyer; they had one son and two stepsons.
The Branton family used to host Mother Rosa Parks as a distinguished houseguest annually when she visited Los Angeles.
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.