Bar News - May 21, 2014
Opinion: From the Obits: Remembering Two Cultural Heavyweights
Two obituaries caught my eye recently. Each man was prominent on the national scene; neither had anything to do with New Hampshire. But their lives were noteworthy and they deserve mention in these pages.
The first was Randoph Thrower, an attorney from Georgia who led the Internal Revenue Service under President Richard Nixon, from 1969 to 1971.
Thrower was born in Florida and educated at Emory in Atlanta. He served in the Marines during the Second World War and then resumed practicing law. He eventually became an expert in taxes; hence the role he played for Nixon. But earlier in his legal career, he had also made a point of working for death row inmates. Those were the days, after all, when the GOP was the permanent political underdog in the South, proud of its heritage as the party of Lincoln and firmly opposed to Jim Crow.
Thrower’s support of civil rights lasted through his White House years, too, where he helped revoke tax-exempt status for schools that excluded blacks. And his sense of personal justice remained just as sharp. He was disgusted when Nixon’s political team sought to use the IRS to investigate their boss’s so-called enemies. Convinced that Nixon could not know about this, he tried to tell the president in person. To his chagrin, though, he could never get a meeting. Instead, he was fired shortly after he tried.
He died on March 8 at the age of 100. His wife died before him. He had three daughters, eleven grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. In speaking of his career, he often recalled one case in particular: Will Coxson, a black teenager who had been convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death. He had been preparing Coxson’s appeal when he joined the Marines, and another lawyer took over the case. But Coxson’s file languished without his personal attention, and he was executed while Thrower was serving in the Pacific. That case kept him up at night, he used to say. “Wondering what else I might have done to save the life of this young man.”
In this day of specialization, where the criminal and civil bars have so little in common, and in this day of political polarization, where the two major parties fight on every conceivable ground, we should all placed framed photographs of Randolph Thrower on our walls.
And in sparing a thought for Will Coxson, I also wanted to mention the death of Rubin Carter. Better known as “Hurricane” Carter, he was a champion black boxer from New Jersey who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. His convictions were overturned because his prosecutors failed to turn over crucial evidence (to wit, that the only witnesses against him had been paid off by those same prosecutors) (and I have no doubt that they still believe he is guilty; they fought to have his convictions reinstated all the way to the United States Supreme Court). Bob Dylan wrote a song about him, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez sang at a concert to raise money for his lawyers, and Denzel Washington played him in a movie.
Carter’s life was rough from the beginning. He stabbed a man at age 11 and ran away from reform school six years later to join the army. That was where he first learned to box. He took an honorable discharge and worked as a truck driver afterwards. Then he was arrested for having been on the lam all that time. They gave him 10 months. Shortly after that, he stole a purse and assaulted a man on the street, crimes for which he served four years. His boxing career started after that. “Throwing people in jail and painting the windows black is not a solution,” he stated. “It’s the problem.”
He was a fierce fighter, a crowd-pleaser, with a flashy look and a strong left hook. He channeled a lot of anger into his fists. He also became involved in his era’s racial politics, which he blamed for his arrest in 1966 on those trumped-up murder charges. He believed that the establishment wanted him to be quiet. His fight for justice lasted through two appeals and two decades.
I don’t know if you need a conspiracy theory to make sense of why his prosecutors lied to the court about their case. Everyday venality and common self-righteousness can cover a lot of ground and do a lot of damage.
But I will still ask my fellow members of the bar to put up a framed picture of Hurricane Carter, today, too – right next to Randolph Thrower’s. They both deserve to be remembered by us all.
Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising. The author’s opinions are his own and do not represent the opinions of his employer, or the NH Bar Association.