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Source: Philadelphia Magazine
Date: July 2007
Byline: Dan P. Lee

Coard v. Coard

Michael Coard
Chris Sembrot
Michael 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

IN A CITY AVERAGING more than one murder — and five shootings — daily, the case the assistant district attorney presented in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Troy Headen rang familiar, by now almost clichéd.

One Sunday last year, Tyrone Hill and his good friend Tyrone Poaches drove to a schoolyard playground in the 4900 block of Parrish Street, in West Philadelphia. After Hill got out of his car, a fistfight broke out between him and another young man; the cause of the argument is unclear. Hill, 195 pounds and by all accounts a powerful fighter, knocked the man out. Troy Headen, a friend of the young man Hill was fighting, was nearby during the fracas and soon approached Hill. Hill and Headen exchanged words, at the least. According to the Commonwealth, Headen, then 20, drew a 9mm Luger. Hill was unarmed. Headen allegedly fired 14 rounds. As Hill curled into a fetal position, seven bullets pierced his body, entering his chest, his stomach, his left and right legs, his scrotum. Headen fled. Tyrone Hill, 23 years old, lay bleeding to death.

The Commonwealth's case was not without complications. The murder weapon was never recovered. And on the stand, Hill's friend Tyrone Poaches, who should have been the DA's star witness, fell apart. Poaches, also 20, turned pugnacious under the DA's questioning, cursing, refusing to answer her, saying, "Why is you asking me these questions, man?" He disavowed the signed six-page statement he'd given police on the night of the murder, in which he'd identified Headen as the shooter and claimed to have witnessed him firing his last two shots into Hill. He testified that he couldn't recall giving any of the detailed answers in his statement, saying, "I get high, so I don't remember." Having ultimately declared him a hostile witness and cross-examined him herself, the DA suggested to the jury in her closing argument that Poaches's equivocation was the product of the anti-snitching mentality that has become endemic in this city, that's an affront to law and order and justice — and that's ravaging almost exclusively the city's black community.

Rising then to deliver his closing argument was Michael Coard, tall and rail-thin, fastidious in a tailored suit, with short, perfectly arranged braids. Coard, the self-proclaimed "angriest black man in America" and a leading light for civil rights in this city, was about to exploit Tyrone Poaches's reticence in hopes of freeing a suspect the authorities had posited beyond a reasonable doubt to be Hill's murderer.

Standing before the jury, smelling like a mixture of mint and cologne ("If you're a defense attorney in Philadelphia, appearances, unfortunately, are what matter," he says later), Coard physically ripped a copy of Poaches's written statement to shreds. According to Coard, it was simple: Poaches's testimony was utterly unreliable. "He comes in," Coard told the jurors, "on Monday and tells you one thing: It was a bright sunny day, he tells you. Comes back Tuesday, and tells you the exact opposite: Hey, on Monday it was actually raining, it was a big storm. You weren't here for this; you don't know. You know he told you one thing on Monday and the opposite on Tuesday. Ladies and gentlemen, what can you conclude on Wednesday? There is only one thing you can conclude: that he's a liar."

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."

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."

AFTER A WEEK-LONG trial in which the prosecution called nearly a dozen witnesses, and Michael Coard, who'd grilled most of them during cross-examination, called only one, who attested to Troy Headen's good and nonviolent reputation, the jurors in the case of Commonwealth v. Troy Headen — after receiving their instructions for deliberations from the judge — left the courtroom with their tiny notebooks in hand.

After less than three hours, they notified the judge they'd reached a unanimous verdict.

Back in the courtroom, the judge instructed Headen to rise.

The court officer reiterated the charge of first-degree murder against him. "How do you find the defendant?" the officer asked the jury foreperson.

"We find the defendant not guilty," the foreperson answered.

MICHAEL COARD really does like to talk about his tombstone, about what accomplishments he wants listed on it when he dies. He is proud of his legal work. He is proud of the radio show he hosted for five years on WHAT (a show that prominent civil rights leader Jerry Mondesire called "quixotic" and likened to "a reverse 180 degrees from Rush Limbaugh"). He is proud of his work teaching courses to the community at large in criminal justice, and in his first and true love, hip-hop, at Temple. But what he's proudest of is a huge open pit on the corner of 6th and Market.

"If I never do anything else in my life," Coard said as we stood at the site recently, watching archaeologists use tiny brushes to gently clean small piles of crumbling bricks, "this will be enough."

In 2001, Coard was reading the Inquirer when he stumbled upon a story about plans by the National Park Service to move the Liberty Bell to a new visitors center. The article stated that the new site was near where the President's House had once stood — essentially the nation's first White House, since George Washington and John Adams lived there during their presidencies. The house had been torn down in the early 19th century.

Coard is an armchair historian, and his interest was piqued. He began to research the President's House, and what he found shocked him. Not only had Washington lived in the house; so had his nine slaves: Hercules, Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels and Joe. The National Park Service had no plans to formally acknowledge the house, let alone the slaves. Historians had determined that the slave quarters stood a mere five feet from the entrance to the new Liberty Bell center. Coard was incensed. For him, the symbolism was devastating: "That was the height of historical hypocrisy, that as you enter this heaven of liberty, you literally have to cross this hell of slavery."

Coard embarked on what would become a years-long struggle to have the slaves first acknowledged, then honored. He enlisted the help of his students at Temple, who conducted a letter-writing campaign to the Park Service. He formed an action committee, the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC). He rallied politicians. He charged his radio listeners to get involved. On July 3, 2002, he held Black Independence Day, with hundreds of protestors turning out to rally for the slaves to be recognized.

Finally, Independence Park contacted Coard to invite ATAC to the table. An archaeological dig was conducted, which uncovered unexpected effects, including dishes and coins. ATAC solicited proposals for memorials, but the site has drawn such interest as it is, and visitors find it so evocative, that for now the pit will remain open and bare, a testament to the foundation of what was, the bits of brick, the floor where the slaves' feet stepped.

It was a remarkable feat: The legacy of the nation's first White House will forever be colored by the legacy of the blacks who were enslaved there.

The murder of 23-year-old Tyrone Hill never made the papers. There was no story of a "life cut down," of "a future denied," of "dreams unfulfilled." Nor was there even a brief mention in print or on TV of the trial of his alleged killer, Troy Headen, or Headen's ultimate acquittal. (He has fled the city and is living in hiding for fear of near-certain retaliation.)

And therein lies the seeming paradox between Coard's activism and his job — helping to release black men back into a community suffering an epidemic of what those men were accused of. According to Jerry Mondesire, the inconsistencies come with the territory: "When you look back on the history of the civil rights struggle, most of the attorneys who made significant improvements in our society also had a dark side." But Coard sees no duality, feels no internal conflict. Instead, he compartmentalizes. The possibility that he could be contributing directly to the murder epidemic by working to release some defendants who are guilty amounts to unfortunate but necessary collateral damage. "I often represent real bad guys who do real bad things, no doubt about it," he says. "The way I go to sleep at night and look at myself in the mirror in the morning is, it's never about my client. It's always about the government. It's always about keeping the greater threat in check."

Paradox and contradiction, history is clear, are part of every man, maybe even more so every great man. For proof, one need look no further than George Washington, the revered father of our nation, who claimed to morally despise slavery but nonetheless transported his slaves from Philadelphia over state lines and back again every few months to circumvent Pennsylvania emancipation laws. Upon saying goodbye to the presidency and the President's House at 6th and Market, he left with his slaves in tow, to join the 300 more he maintained back at Mount Vernon. And to his dying day, he pursued, from Virginia, the reacquisition of a favorite slave of his wife's who'd escaped from Philadelphia to the freedom of New Hampshire.

Standing overlooking the ground where his forefathers once toiled, the springtime air filled with equal parts pollen and irony, Michael Coard declares that history can rightly remember George Washington as a great president, a great general, but never a great human being. "In history, as in law," he says, "you have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."