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

A SUMMER JOB with the Prisoners’ Rights Council while he was attending Cheyney University — Coard worked primarily with young black ex-cons, helping them learn to read — secured his fate. “I was like, I don’t want to work with these thugs, these murderers, these rapists,” he recalls. “But when I got there, I began to understand what it means when people say, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ Because growing up in North Philly, I could have been one of these guys.” He got into Ohio State’s law school thanks to an affirmative action program (and is a staunch supporter of affirmative action). Disillusioned by white students there only for future money and power, he seriously contemplated dropping out. But a professor convinced him he could have a bigger impact by cutting his Afro, shaving, trading his dashiki for a suit and tie, and jumping into the arena as a criminal defense attorney.

After graduation, he went to work at the Bowser Law Center, Charles Bowser being, in Coard’s words, “the dean of the Philadelphia black lawyers.” Then, in 1998, the case against Philadelphia cop Christopher DiPasquale, who shot and killed an unarmed, nonresponsive black man sitting behind the wheel of his idling car, melded advocacy and the law for Coard. The shooting outraged the black community, but DA Lynne Abraham refused to lodge charges against DiPasquale. Using an arcane citizen’s-complaint statute, Coard went around her, and a judge ruled on his behalf, charging DiPasquale with murder. The charge would be overturned, though DiPasquale was ultimately fired and the police department settled a wrongful-death suit for more than $700,000. The case, says Coard, nevertheless “showed everyone that it was all bullshit. It was racist.”

The case also highlights Coard’s conflicted feelings toward law enforcement — toward “the government,” the euphemism he uses to describe the police, prosecutors, ultimately even the courts — and gets at some of the inherent contradictions between his job and his activism.

Coard offers high praise for the city’s homicide investigators, whom he calls “the cream of the crop.” And he passionately condemns the anti-snitching mentality that resulted in these same officers solving fewer than 60 percent of black homicides last year, and which, he admits, frequently afflicts witnesses on the stand in the homicide cases he handles. “These people who wear these dumb-ass, fucked-up t-shirts saying ‘No snitchin’,’” Coard says, “they don’t even know what snitching means. … We in the black community need to fight crime harder than other people, because we’re victims of it more than anyone else.”

Yet he empathizes with African-Americans’ reticence, since police in black neighborhoods have often behaved like “occupying army officers. … And then we see what they did in the ’60s to the civil rights activists, we’re like, hey, fuck them, they’re not our friends.” And as a defense attorney, Coard, of course, exploits the anti-snitching mentality, as in the Troy Headen case.

But he says he wants criminals off the streets even more than most prosecutors, because those criminals are “coming back to my neighborhood, not their neighborhood” (though Coard now lives in Center City). In his next breath, Coard betrays a serious distrust of the authorities, saying the greater, more menacing threat is “the awesome powers” of a government that can literally take everything from a defendant, even his life, “with a 7,000-member army that we call the Philadelphia police department” behind it. And it is this view of the criminal justice system — more, even, than his covenant as a lawyer that every defendant deserves a defense — that Coard leans on to do what he does in court.

“When I go in as a defense attorney,” Coard says, “I’m not focusing on my client, who might be this horrible murderer, this horrible rapist, this horrible robber. I’m making sure that the greater threat is addressed, and that greater threat is the prosecution.”

Which brings us to this: What about cases in which he himself has no doubt about his client’s guilt, cases in which he believes the government has conducted a thorough and fair investigation and has offered solid evidence of his client’s culpability? In those circumstances, for the sake of justice and law and order, is he comfortable seeing his client found guilty after a fair trial?

“That’s a great question,” Coard says, chuckling, “and the answer is no. I always want to win. I always want my client to be found not guilty.”