Attorney Leo Branton, Jr.’s courtroom brilliance was introduced to a new generation of admirers in Shola Lynch’s documentary “Free Angela Davis (And All Political Prisoners).” With fellow attorney Howard Moore, Branton devised a strategy in selecting jurors and then presented a stirring closing argument that freed Davis of the charges brought against her. Branton, 91, died of natural causes Friday, April 19 in Los Angeles, according to his son Tony Nicholas.
But long before his celebrated and successful representation of Davis, Branton had earned a national reputation and had an elite core of clients, including singer Nat King Cole and the actress Dorothy Dandridge. It was his close ties with Dandridge that attracted others to him.
“He was a hero of mine,” attorney Connie Rice told the Los Angeles Times. “All the things I’ve done, Leo Branton did 50 years before I even thought of going to law school. He saw himself not as a private practitioner out to make money for himself but as a lawyer with the skills to be a champion for Black liberation.”
His forthright and unwavering conviction on the behalf of those persecuted and prosecuted, particularly civil rights activists and members of the Communist Party were often tested in and out of the courtroom, but Branton was undaunted and met each challenge with uncommon valor and creative legal insight.
Born in Pine Bluff, Ark., Branton earned a bachelor’s degree from Tennessee State University in 1n 1942 and then spent three years in the Army during World War II, experiencing combat in Italy.
In 1948, Branton was the only African American graduate of Northwestern University’s law school, and he subsequently moved to California.
He arrived in California at a time when the McCarthy witch hunts were plaguing the nation and disrupting the lives of many activists opposed to government’s un-American activities—and there was the heinous acts of the LAPD to deal with.
“I was the only lawyer in Los Angeles filing cases against the LAPD…for malfeasance,” Branton told the Times in an unpublished interview in 2011. “I probably filed more cases against the LAPD than the rest of the Black bar.”
This unprecedented activity was in perfect keeping with the outlook of civil liberties lawyer Ben Margolis and Branton joined him in representing Communists who had been charged with overthrowing the government. The defendants were convicted in 1952 but five years later the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the decision after ruling that it was one thing to advocate a principle and another to actually carry it out.
Later, Branton’s collaboration with the famed attorney Charles Garry and their successful defense of Robert Wesley Wills, a Black man sentenced to death for assaulting a prison guard while serving a life sentence, added to his growing prominence. The case garnered national attention and Wells was later granted clemency and freed.
Branton’s courtroom achievements made him an attorney widely sought by folks in all walks of life, and none more eager than those from the world of entertainment, and along with Cole and Dandridge there was Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and countless others among his clients.
But it was his defense of Angela Davis in 1972 that gave him the cache that has marked his place forever in the memories of political activists. Davis, a professor at UCLA, had already been in the public spotlight following her dismissal from the college because of her membership in the Communist Party. But her notoriety was boosted considerably when she was implicated in a shootout in a courtroom in San Rafael during a failed attempt by a young Jonathan Jackson to rescue his brother from prison.
The guns used in the incident were traced to Davis, thereby linking her to the crime and forcing her to flee custody. For seven months she was a fugitive before being apprehended and brought to trial. And that’s when Branton and Moore went to work.
“Certainly his brilliant closing argument had a profound impact on the jury,” said Davis, in an interview with Times last week and now in retirement from teaching. “What I appreciated most about Leo’s role in the case was his willingness to take seriously others’ idea—including my own.”
In 1955, Branton married Geraldine Pate Nicholas, who had been married to Fayard Nicholas, of the famous Nicholas Brothers. According to the Times, she was a close friend of Dandridge and this was an important connection to the world of entertainment and put Branton in touch with other notables, including Richard Pryor and the Platters.
Mrs. Branton died in 2006. In addition to Tony Nicholas, Branton is survived by sons Leo “Chip” Branton and Paul Nicholas; a brother, Sterling; a sister, Julia Branton; and five grandchildren.