Palmer Singleton, 70, dies. Defended those on death row

Palmer Singleton, shown here in 2008 with his ever present pipe, was a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights and a man who rescued so many Alaskan malamutes he had to get a kennel license for his Atlanta home. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Sudeall.)

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Palmer Singleton, shown here in 2008 with his ever present pipe, was a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights and a man who rescued so many Alaskan malamutes he had to get a kennel license for his Atlanta home. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Sudeall.)

Years after his mother waved a fireplace poker at officers trying to arrest her son for refusing to enter the Vietnam War draft, Palmer Singleton fought with the same zeal for people on death row.

The former Southern Center for Human Rights lawyer, known for his gruff façade, big heart, love of dogs and his pipe, died Feb. 6 from complications from lung cancer in Montgomery, Alabama. Singleton’s former partner, their son and his two beloved dogs were by his side.

“Palmer was an absolutely brilliant lawyer. He saw legal issues that nobody else saw,” said Stephen Bright, Southern Center’s former president. “He was a great mentor to students and lawyers. He always had great advice and great insights. And he was just a great friend, an incredibly good friend in every way.”

Singleton spent the bulk of his legal career at the Southern Center, where he handled hundreds of cases, most of them uphill fights against death penalty convictions. Most of them, he lost. But he never gave up, in spite of the despair that comes with the job and a 1986 brain aneurysm that left him at risk for seizures.

Born August 16, 1951, in East Chicago, Indiana, his lifetime of social activism started in high school, where he founded an antiwar group. He was involved in a union movement for sailors ferrying iron ore to steel mills, and he protested at the Pentagon and at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

“He was really bothered when he saw other people suffering, and when he felt like he could do something about it, he had to,” said Singleton’s son, Sam Singleton-Freeman.

Singleton-Freeman and his mother, Christine Freeman, detailed Singleton’s surprising life in an internet publication. He sailed the western hemisphere, once fixed folk singer Pete Seeger’s boat compass and befriended singer Ani DeFranco, who described him in her autobiography “as having a Buddha nature. A sort of cranky version.”

Their account also includes Singleton’s arrest, trial and conviction for refusing to enter the draft when he turned 18.

Singleton’s mother, Sue, tried to use a fireplace poker to hold off federal agents attempting to arrest her son. At trial, his father, Palmer Singleton Jr., refused to answer questions from the prosecutors who subpoenaed him.

“My name is not Abraham and my son is not Isaac,” the elder Singleton said. He was released from testifying.

But his son was convicted for refusing to register for the draft when he turned 18, though he could have avoided the trial in several ways, such as applying for conscientious objector status or a student deferment.

“The law is only legitimate and has power if that person agrees to obey it. When he openly refuses to obey it, the law no longer has power,” Singleton is quoted telling the judge who was to impose his sentence. “Through Gandhian civil disobedience, by openly breaking the law and accepting the punishment, we raise the issues challenging the legitimacy of the forces that determine our behavior.” He served 14 months in prison.

President Jimmy Carter pardoned Vietnam-era protesters in 1977, which made it possible for Singleton to pursue a career in law. But he considered it morally unnecessary, friends say, because Singleton believed he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Friends, colleagues and former clients said Singleton’s prison experience made him a more empathetic lawyer to incarcerated people and relatable to others, including homeless people, musicians, barkeeps and their patrons.

“He was a straight to the chase kind of guy. He would tell the truth no matter what,” recalled former client Luci Harrell. “He once told me, ‘Look on the bright side. Most of my clients are dead.’’'

“He always said to people, ‘You’re a good soul,’” said Page Dukes, Harrell’s partner.

Singleton met the two in 2015 while both were incarcerated at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto. Harrell is now pursuing a career in law, and Dukes works as a communications associate at the Southern Center.

Dukes recalled multiple restaurant visits with Singleton, who always had meals out and often joked that the only ones who ate at his home were his dogs, many of them rescues. Singleton kept mostly malamutes and huskies, as many as nine at a time, which was enough for the city of Atlanta to require him to get a kennel license.

Dukes last saw Singleton just before Christmas at Grant Central Pizza in Grant Park. He was black-eyed from kidney failure and clearly in pain even though he didn’t show it, she recalled. Gregarious as ever, Singleton joked that “Someone finally got tired of his [expletive] and punched him in the face.” Dukes said.

“He was one of the most unique people I’ve ever known, a total non-conformist who didn’t care how he looked or was perceived,” Dukes said. “But he was sweet. Everybody at the restaurant knew him by name.”

Singleton donated his body to Emory University for medical research. Friends and family are planning a memorial reception in May.

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