When attorney Millard Farmer took the case of the “Dawson Five” in 1976, he assumed his clients were guilty of the armed robbery and murder of a 61-year-old man in Terrell County.
That’s because the state was seeking the death penalty, the sort of case where there’s rarely ever a question of the accused’s innocence. In this one, five young African Americans were charged with murder in rural Dawson.
But Farmer became startled as his investigation unfolded. “We realized, hey, these people didn’t kill this man,” he said in an oral history posted by the Georgia State University Library. “They’re being falsely accused.”
Farmer made a name for himself in how he defended the Dawson Five. He attacked racial bias in the deeply segregated town and convinced a judge to throw out confessions made by two defendants — one who said the sheriff had put a gun to his head, the other who said he was threatened with electrocution and castration.
With no confessions, the case fell apart. The Dawson Five were freed, and no one else was charged with the crime.
Millard Courtney Farmer Jr. died Friday at the age of 85. No services are scheduled at this time, H.M. Patterson & Son — Oglethorpe Hill said.
Throughout his career, the gravel-voiced Atlanta lawyer was an outspoken crusader. He vehemently opposed capital punishment and exposed racial bias in the justice system.
His zealous defense of his clients occasionally landed him in hot water. The most notable was scorched-earth litigation in a divorce and child custody case in Coweta County that led the Georgia Supreme Court to disbar Farmer in 2019.
“Sometimes when you call it like it is, you get punished,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There’s no doubt that’s exactly what happened here.”
But the state high court found that Farmer had threatened witnesses and filed scores of frivolous motions intended “to disrupt the judicial process.”
In 2018, a federal judge found Farmer liable for $242,835 in damages from a racketeering lawsuit filed by his Coweta client’s former husband. That judgment, Farmer said, led to losing his home and his law office.
Still, Farmer’s criminal defense work decades ago was an inspiration to many.
“He was a great mentor of mine, who devoted his life and his family fortune to his capital clients for many years,” anti-death penalty lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who founded London-based Reprieve, said on Twitter.
Farmer, who was from Newnan, began his legal career representing bootleggers. But he later took on a number of high-profile cases. This included helping overturn the murder conviction of Wayne Car, who ran Hastings Nature and Garden Center and had been accused of killing his wife.
He told the GSU library he opposed the death penalty because he saw defendants were not being properly represented.
“We could see how people didn’t understand the law,” he said. “We could see how people didn’t have the financial resources. We could see how the individuals were being tried in like a day or two days. And we could see how the community bias would certainly fix it so the people couldn’t have enough information to make a good decision.”
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