Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Black Lawyers

BOND: But let me take it back a little bit. Before you get to Harvard Law School, you have to decide "I want to be a lawyer."

OGLETREE: Right, right.

BOND: How did that happen?

OGLETREE: Angela Davis. When I saw Angela Davis -- I met her when she was in prison, talked to her about her trial, told her what we were doing. And I saw lawyers working for justice. I said, "Wow, this really makes a difference!" I thought I was going to stay at Stanford, get a Ph.D. in international relations, political science, write books and try to change public policy and public opinion. But seeing her trial made me think about, "Gosh, lawyers can make a phenomenal difference."

And I saw four lawyers do that. I saw them take the government's evidence and turn it on its head. I saw them have a client like Angela Davis actually participate in the trial. She was not a potted plant. She actually played a role giving part of the opening statement, examining witnesses. I saw the true dream team, a diverse team of women and men, black and white, defending someone against charges that could have resulted in a punishment as serious as the death penalty. I saw it at a time, when I said, that Reagan was the governor, Nixon was the president, and there was this war on crime, and certainly war on someone who would be labeled as a communist, as Angela Davis was. She was in the worst possible circumstance, and I saw lawyers save the day. And I said if I ever had the opportunity and privilege to do that, that's what I'd like to do. I'd like to become a lawyer and try to serve the community and try to save the day.

And that trial was the transformative point during my second year at Stanford University.

BOND: But you also had a friend ensnared in the criminal justice system.

OGLETREE: That's exactly right. That's exactly right. And that's the dark side of the system. one of my dearest high school friends, a brother by the name of Eugene Allen, we played sports together, ran track, hung out. And this brother didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't curse, just a wonderful young man with enormous talent. And his junior year -- sophomore year in high school, he was accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail at the coach, at the coach's house, our football coach's house who treated him badly. There's no defense of that. There's no justification toward.

But Eugene got on a trajectory that sent him from Merced as a juvenile to a youth camp in California where there was a race dispute and a young black kid was -- a white kid, was murdered. Gene was charged with that even though he wasn't responsible. He didn't tell what happened. He refused to tell what happened, because he was only seventeen, and, he ended up going to San Quentin. He was charged with a second homicide in San Quentin. And he was tried and convicted, sentenced to the death penalty. It was reversed, tried again, and was acquitted of all charges.

I've been working on Gene's case since I was a student at Stanford in 1971, trying to get him paroled. And to me it's a constant sense about how the system can give you certain benefits. The Angela Davises of the world, with all the support, can have a legal team that make a difference. But there are so many of our community members who are caught up in the system and who don't have a way out. And so, it's a constant reminder to me, that as long as I live, Eugene Allen is a reminder.

I'm writing a second book about the criminal justice system, of the flaws of the system. Here's a person who's been acquitted and should be released but, because the people who were killed in San Quentin were guards, they keep denying his parole, even though he should have been parole-eligible in the '80s, and this is the year 2004. He's been in prison for all of his adult life since he was a teenager. I talk to him regularly. I've been supporting efforts to -- I've appeared at his parole hearings. He is doing some wonderful projects. He's self-educated, brilliant young man, and I think that he's an example of the failure of the criminal justice system and the hypocrisy of the California Department of Corrections.