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Charles Ogletree Jr., Criminal Justice Reformer, Dead at 70

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor who helped reframe debates around criminal justice, school desegregation, and reparations during the 1990s and 2000s, all the while mentoring a new generation of Black lawyers that included President Obama and Michelle Obama, died on Friday in Odenton, Md. He was 70. A son of California tenant farmers and the first in his family to graduate from high school, Ogletree became one of the nation's most prominent civil rights lawyers, leaving a mark on the courtroom and the classroom, reports the New York Times. As a litigator, he defended clients both famous and unknown, including Tupac Shakur and the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, whom he helped to sue the city and the state of Oklahoma for restitution in 2003. "He was determined to see that Black people were treated fairly in the courts, whether they were an Anita Hill or a Tupac or an indigent person in the streets of Boston,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., a close friend and fellow Harvard scholar..

At Harvard, whose faculty he joined in 1985, Ogletree expanded clinical training efforts, especially in public and indigent defense. Soon after arriving, he founded the Criminal Justice Institute, which offers students the opportunity to work in juvenile and district courts around Boston. He also created what he called Saturday School, an informal program open to all but aimed at Black students who might need extra support on Harvard’s mostly white campus. Throughout the 1990s Professor Ogletree moderated a series on legal ethics for PBS, and in 1994 NBC hired him as an on-air analyst during the O.J. Simpson trial. He predicted, correctly, that it would end in a not-guilty verdict, at a time when most people in the news media were sure that Simpson would be convicted of murder. Ogletree argued that the news media’s coverage of the Simpson case was indicative of its coverage of Black Americans in general. Black people, he said, were rarely given the benefit of the doubt, a bias that in turn facilitated police and legal misconduct.


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