Justice: Coard v. Coard

He’s made it his mission to demand acknowledgement of the slaves who served George Washington even as he works to free young blacks accused of murder in the city’s epidemic of death. Meet the complicated Michael Coard, Esquire

Certainly, Coard’s sentiments about the Commonwealth’s burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the law’s distinction between not guilty and innocent — “I don’t know what is in your mind,” he told the jury, “but I’m telling you it is not a question of innocence; put that out of your head” — are above reproach in his role as attorney; they are at the very foundation of our system of justice. But Michael Coard is more than a defense attorney, more than just an advocate for the accused. As one of the foremost crusaders for African-Americans in Philadelphia, he is also by definition an advocate for truth and justice; his years-long battle to thwart a Park Service plan that would have literally paved over the fact that George Washington’s slaves once lived on Independence Mall is testament to that. So how does a man who hopes his tombstone someday reflects a life spent fighting on behalf of black Philadelphians reconcile a career devoted to attempting to set free, regardless of their actual guilt or innocence, the men the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania asserts are behind the most urgent issue confronting African-Americans in this city — the violence that’s claimed more than 1,600 black lives since 2002?

A few days after the trial of Troy Headen ends, knowing attorney-client privilege precludes his ability to answer fully, I nevertheless ask Coard whether he believes Headen is guilty or innocent.

“The truth is,” he says, “it doesn’t matter.”

MICHAEL COARD, 49, is one of a select group of private criminal defense attorneys qualified to handle murder cases for clients who can’t afford representation; these make up about 60 percent of his murder cases, though he earns only about a quarter of his usual rate for them. He takes these clients because they are primarily capital cases; he’s philosophically opposed to the death penalty (which a 2001 study showed DA Lynne Abraham pursues in about 85 percent of murder cases, a statistic Coard believes is indicative of the DA’s attempt to strong-arm defendants into guilty pleas).

But other statistics point to deep-rooted problems in the city’s African-American community: Only about half of all black boys finish high school; fewer than 50 percent of black men ages 16 to 64 are employed; 29 percent of blacks live in poverty. And then there is the crime: Coard himself told me 99 percent of his clients are black. In talking about race, Coard, who identifies himself as a “Pan-African socialist,” is open and thoughtful, occasionally controversial, and sometimes highly critical of “my own people.” On the one hand, his view of African-American history is straightforward: “Racism as the vestige of slavery” is the root cause of many African-American woes. Yet at the same time, he has little patience for the “fucked-up and weak-kneed excuse” he says many blacks use of “the white man keeping us down,” one that denigrates the “grand and glorious history of Africa and African-Americans” — those who, he notes, overcame the ultimate obstacle, slavery. “Far too many of us,” he says, “are just far too goddamn lazy and rely far too much on crutches.”

The way Coard sees it, the legacy of slavery can be flipped on its head, used as a source not of excuses and crutches, but as evidence of great strength in prevailing. Yet that, in turn, makes his dismissal of the importance of the guilt or innocence of the accused black men he defends a contradiction, or hypocritical, or, at the least, troubling. How can murderers set free, murderers not held accountable, help resolve our worst urban problem?

Michael Coard’s background isn’t all that different from that of many young blacks in North Philadelphia; he lived in a small rowhouse with his older brother, his mother (a circuit-board assembler at Philco-Ford), his grandfather (a laborer at a farm in Pennsauken) and his grandmother (a maid at the Adelphia Hotel). His father, a disabled Korean War veteran, didn’t live with the family. Coard’s neighborhood at 20th and York was entirely poor, entirely black, and frequently dangerous. One afternoon when he was a young teen, he and some friends nailed a backboard to a telephone pole in the street to shoot some hoops. A neighborhood boy came running toward them, followed by another boy, who caught up to the first just as they reached the spot where Coard and his friends were playing. The second boy plunged a butcher knife into the other’s chest, killing him on the spot. “The real difference then,” Coard says, “is nobody had guns.”

But Coard, smart and a talented baseball player, seemed to float above the violence and the harsh realities of his geography. An aptitude test landed him in the prestigious Masterman School for gifted students, where his classmates included the future actor Kevin Bacon; it was during a visit to Bacon’s summer home that Coard realized for the first time that “Wow, there’s some people that have a whole lot of stuff, and folks like me who have very little.”