Leo Branton Jr., a civil rights and entertainment lawyer whose stirring defense of 1960s radical Angela Davis brought him his most celebrated victory in a six-decade career often spent championing unpopular cases, died April 19 in Los Angeles. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by a son, Tony Nicholas. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Branton, the only African American graduate of Northwestern University’s law school in 1948, helped singer Nat “King” Cole integrate an exclusive Los Angeles neighborhood, defended communists in McCarthy-era Los Angeles and won misconduct cases against the Los Angeles Police Department decades before Rodney King became a household name.
Mr. Branton received national attention as co-lead defense attorney at the 1972 trial of Davis, a UCLA professor fired for her communist beliefs. Davis faced the death penalty when a gun registered in her name was linked to the killing of a Marin County judge.
Davis, who was brought to trial after several months as a fugitive, was acquitted by an all-white jury. The stunning outcome was credited in part to Mr. Branton’s compelling courtroom style.
On the closing day of the trial, he stood before the jury with an easel holding a drawing of his client wrapped and bound in chains. He ripped down that drawing to reveal a picture of Davis unbound, and exhorted the jurors to “pull away these chains as I have pulled away that piece of paper.”
He then proceeded to poke holes in the prosecution’s case and, with a moving summary of centuries of African American history, asked the panel to “understand what it means to be black.”
“Certainly his brilliant closing argument had a profound impact on the jury,” Davis told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday.
She went on to say, “What I most appreciated about Leo’s role in the case was his willingness to take seriously others’ ideas — including my own.”
Mr. Branton was born in Pine Bluff, Ark., on Feb. 17, 1922. He graduated from Tennessee State University in 1942 and spent three years in the Army during World War II, where he saw combat in Italy. After the war, he earned a law degree at Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. He moved to California in 1949.
Soon after opening a private practice in Los Angeles, he began taking on cases against the Los Angeles Police Department.
In the 1950s, Mr. Branton was one of several lawyers who won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving 14 members of the Communist Party who were accused of conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the government.
In 1952, he joined civil rights lawyer Charles Garry in a successful campaign to save the life of Robert Wesley Wells, a black man sentenced to death for assaulting a prison guard while serving a life term. Wells was later freed.
One of Mr. Branson’s first celebrity clients was Cole, the popular singer who angered white neighbors when he bought a stately home in Hancock Park in Los Angeles in the late 1940s.
In 1955, Mr. Branton married Geraldine Pate Nicholas, who had been married to Fayard Nicholas of the tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers. Her close friendship with Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, brought more celebrities to Mr. Branton’s client roster, which would later include the Platters, Miles Davis and Richard Pryor.
Mr. Branton’s wife died in 2006. Survivors include three sons; a brother; a sister; and five grandchidlren.
For two decades, Mr. Branton also represented the father of rock icon Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970 after a drug overdose. In 1993, Al Hendrix sued Mr. Branton and others to regain control over his famous son’s image and music, which the father had signed away under contracts negotiated by Mr. Branton in 1974. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 1995.
A few years ago, Mr. Branton reenacted his closing argument in the Davis case for professor Charles Ogletree’s criminal law students at Harvard.
“It was mesmerizing,” Ogletree said. “He taught my students what a great lawyer can do to humanize a client and make a jury see that the burden of proof is on the government.”
Mr. Branton continued to practice law until early this year.