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Noted defense attorney Charles Ogletree dies

Harvard Law School professor and noted defense attorney Charles Ogletree, seen here in 2017, died on Friday at age 70.
Frederick M. Brown
Getty Images
Harvard Law School professor and noted defense attorney Charles Ogletree, seen here in 2017, died on Friday at age 70.

Harvard Law School professor and noted defense attorney Charles Ogletree has died at age 70 following an Alzheimer's disease diagnosis years ago.

Ogletree was known as a brilliant legal mind and a champion for racial equality and social justice in the classroom at Harvard Law School as well as in the courtroom.

"He helps lift up voices that have been forgotten and have been lost, and that's been his life's work," said former President Barack Obama prior to Ogletree being honored with an award for his work years ago. Obama had known Ogletree as his law professor, mentor, campaign adviser and friend.

"He's always given me a pat on the back, especially when I'm not doing well. And that's, I think, the mark of a true friend," Obama said.

"Tree" — as Ogletree was affectionately known to friends — was as renowned and respected globally as he was close to home. He jetted to South Africa to lend a hand to those drafting the nation's new constitution after apartheid, the same way he jumped in to help generations of law students and young lawyers, as well as a long roster of both indigent and A-list clients.

He was a zealous and fearless advocate for Tupac Shakur, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Anita Hill, when she brought allegations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Hill said Ogletree immediately understood that she would need a defense attorney even though she was the accuser, not the accused. And even though Ogletree was up for tenure at the time, Hill said, he didn't hesitate to wade into the controversy.

"[Ogletree] was incredibly astute in being able to apply what he learned as a trial lawyer to a situation that really had no rules," she said. "By advocating on my behalf, Charles Ogletree showed that this quest for gender justice for an African American woman is the quest for racial justice. That meant a lot to me."

Ogletree was also the first to get the frantic call after Harvard University professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. was arrested for a suspected break-in at his own home. The arrest prompted then-President Obama's White House "beer summit" with Gates and the officer who arrested him.

As he was wont to do, Ogletree used it as a teachable moment about both race and class, writing a book about it called The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class, and Crime in America. It was one of about a dozen books he wrote or contributed to, along with countless other scholarly works.

A storied beginning

Ogletree grew up on "the wrong side of the tracks" in the Central California town of Merced in a house made of cargo boxes with an outhouse. His parents, who fled the Jim Crow South with just fourth- and 10th-grade educations, barely got by as seasonal farmworkers. Ogletree said he too worked the fields as a kid, picking peaches, almonds and cotton.

But his parents always stressed the importance of education, and Ogletree often recalled how he would take out 20 books at a time from the local library and how reading became his escape and his ambition.

"I could be somebody that I wasn't," he explained to Julian Bond in an interview at the University of Virginia in 2004. "I was no longer Black or poor. I was an explorer. I was a creator. I was an astronomer. And finally, it sort of removed shackles that I thought I had on my mind, and it made me imagine then [that] I could do anything."

He had never heard of Stanford University when a school guidance counselor urged him to apply. Once there, he quickly became a student activist and leader.

A self-described "Brown baby" — starting school shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision repudiating the doctrine of "separate but equal" schools — Ogletree often lamented the slow pace of racial progress and the enduring resistance to desegregation. It hit him especially hard when he arrived in Boston to attend Harvard Law School in 1975 at the height of Boston's busing crisis and racial violence.

"It was a rude awakening," he recalled in that 2004 interview with Bond. "Right within the sound of my voice were Black children who were being harassed, who were being challenged, who were being beaten [...] because of their race. I could not imagine that 21 years after Brown, that the battleground had moved from the South ... to Boston, and that, to me, was a rude awakening that I needed to be in law school, but also that I needed to be focused on what was going on right there in my community."

It's what drove Ogletree to pass on the kind of Big Law and corporate jobs that easily could have been his and instead take a low-paying job as a public defender in Washington, D.C.

Ted Shaw, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a friend, said that this decision surprised no one.

"Anybody who knew Tree knew [that kind of work] was what made him live and breathe," Shaw said. "That's just who he was."

Ogletree used to joke with his sister, a police officer, that she would lock people up and he would get people off. That sister's life ended tragically in 1982, when she was found stabbed to death in her home, with her 3-year-old son crying beside her.

"It changed my whole philosophy about what I was doing, because I had been a public defender for five years by then," Ogletree told journalist Brian Lamb in an interview broadcast on C-SPAN in 2004. "It made me feel victimized for the first time."

True to form, Ogletree became a "zealous victim," as he put it, pressing relentlessly for a resolution of the case, which still remains unsolved. Twenty-two years later, he told Lamb that he was still regularly calling the police chief about it and would never forget about it or let it go.

Finding a calling

Ogletree showed the same tenacity as a public defender, winning virtually all his cases and quickly rising through the ranks. He only left the public defender's office, after a falling-out with higher-ups, because he'd taken a stand against a strict minority minimum hiring quota, according to law school classmate and friend Ken Frazier, who became the chair and CEO of the pharmaceutical giant Merck.

"He was an advocate for equal rights," said Frazier. "And I think what he showed in that one instance is that he was committed to justice and equal rights, not simply opposed to discrimination against African Americans."

After moving to academia and earning tenure at Harvard Law School, Ogletree continued to be a civil rights litigator and activist as much as a scholar, eventually founding the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, specifically to "bridge ... scholarship, law, policy and practice."

His voice first became widely known as a moderator for the PBS television series Ethics in America, and he went on to become a prolific legal analyst on TV. And all along, he continued to take on issues like racial bias in policing and capital punishment, and even the most quixotic battles of the day: seeking restitution for survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riots and reparations for descendants of slaves.

"Black folks were proud of Tree," Shaw said. "What he was doing was truth-telling, and I don't think anybody will ever forget him for that."

"I think Tree will go down in history as a champion of justice," agreed longtime friend and fellow attorney Dennis Sweet. "He's going to have one heck of a legacy."

Ever since they met at the D.C. public defender's office in 1979, Sweet shared Ogletree's passion for civil rights work — and for fishing, another exploit in which Ogletree's determination and nerve served him well.

On one of their many tuna-fishing trips, Sweet said, they found themselves stuck 50 miles off Martha's Vineyard with a dead motor as an unexpected storm whipped up 20-foot seas and sharks circled. While others on board angsted in fear, Sweet said, Ogletree threw out a line.

"Tree catches this huge shark while we were all sitting there!" Sweet laughed. "He wasn't even worried. That's just Tree. [He was saying,] 'Man, we're going to be all right. It's gonna work out.'"

A long fight

Ogletree brought that same mettle to his battle against Alzheimer's, sharing his diagnosis publicly and speaking out to help raise awareness and remove the stigma from a disease that disproportionately afflicts African Americans.

"The way he talked about [it] ... it was very courageous, no question about it," Shaw said.

Equally courageous, Shaw said, is Ogletree's family: his son, Charles Ogletree III; his daughter, Rashida Ogletree-George; and his wife, Pam Barnes, whom Ogletree described as his "soul mate since the day [he] met her" as a Stanford undergraduate. Since his diagnosis, she had been assiduously devoted to caring for her husband and protecting him from his cruel disease.

"To see her commitment [to his care] has been both hard to watch and beautiful, but in a very sad way," said Shaw, breaking up as he spoke. As is the case with Alzheimer's, Shaw said, their grieving began many years ago.

"It's two deaths. You know, you lose him twice," Shaw said. "And it's cruel. But I try to think about what Tree did. He used his time well. You know, he's run his race. And run it well."

As a teacher and an activist, Ogletree was ever mindful of passing the baton. He spoke often about wanting to "lower the ladder" to the next generation and offer opportunities to others, as others did for him.

When he was honored by a youth empowerment organization in 2015, shortly after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, he said, "I want to be remembered not for awards ... but really remembered for somebody who was lifted up by others who saw there was some hope in me. ... That's what life is all about."

"Tree," his friends say, could not have been more aptly nicknamed: He stood tall, offering protection and cover, and he was a force of nature who will continue to bear fruit for generations to come.

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Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.