Leo Branton, Jr. was the African American lawyer responsible for the acquittal of activist Angela Davis in 1972. Davis was on trial for murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. Branton was up against an all-white jury. The WWII veteran had served as counsel for Nat King Cole, Dorothy Dandridge, the estate of Jimi Hendrix and the Black Panther party. The Angela Davis case was arguably Branton’s most challenging.
Leo Branton Jr. was a Pine Bluff, Arkansas native and graduate of Tennessee State University and Northwestern University Law School. His practice defending members of the Communist Party began in 1952 when he defended 14 members of the party whose charges were eventually vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1970, Judge Harold Haley was murdered with a weapon owned by Angela Davis. Davis had known ties to the Communist Party. Branton used arguments regarding slavery, racism and police brutality to win Davis’ case. At the time, 28-year-old Angela Davis had ended her tenure as an instructor at the University of California and was a communist fugitive on the FBI’s most wanted list.
Branton was able to argue Davis’ run from the police with an explanation of black oppression and police brutality. In an excerpt printed by the New York Times which quoted Branton’s argument:
“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.”