Millard Farmer at a meeting for supporters of the Dawson Five in the summer of 1977.
Millard Farmer: Crusader
Millard Farmer was born in Newnan, Georgia in 1934. Early on, he learned that not everyone had equal access to legal expertise. His father owned a farm, and it was not uncommon for him to negotiate with solicitors and the courts to keep some of the poorest farmhands out of jail for bootlegging and other small crimes. “They couldn't go to the court themselves and explain what they had done or the reason they shouldn't be in jail”, Farmer recalled in 2012 interview. “My father would say look, he's got a lot of children, you can't blame him for selling liquor and look, how much fine do you want?”
Even then, Farmer did not see himself becoming a lawyer. After attending University of Georgia, he returned to Newnan to work in agriculture with his father. As the business started to slow, he decided to go to law school. He attended the Woodrow Wilson College of Law at night, commuting an hour to Atlanta, while he continued to work for his father. Farmer was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1967.
Farmer began his career representing bootleggers, mostly poor people operating stills to supplement a meager income. From the start he had been keenly aware of how the jury selection process determined the outcome of a trial. As he represented more clients, he also became aware of how easily jury selection could reflect the racial bias of a community. “Because I was representing African American people a lot, and there were no African American people on the jury, I had to do something about it.”
Farmer didn’t work exclusively in criminal defense until he joined the Georgia Criminal Justice Council in 1975. Though it did not play a decisive role in his defense of the Dawson Five, jury composition became a major element of his overall approach to legal aid for indigent and underrepresented clients.
Thus far, Farmer’s experience had taught him that racial bias and unequal access to legal representation could decide a case before it even started. When the death penalty was involved, these imbalances became especially dangerous. So in 1976, Farmer and psychologist Courtney Mullin formed the Team Defense Project, with the goal of defending indigent clients as a means to bring the iniquities of the death penalty to national attention. “We had a pretty realistic view,” Farmer said, “that the reason people were getting the death penalty is that they weren’t being properly represented.” (Click on the audio file below to hear Farmer describe his opposition to the death penalty and motive for co-founding the Team Defense Project)
It was in this capacity that Farmer learned of the Dawson Five. From the start, he wanted to challenge the death penalty in a community known for its racial inequality. “Terrell County, they called it terrible Terrell, because the civil rights era and the civil rights days, everybody in the civil rights movement knew if you went to terrible Terrell County, it was going to be tough.” The more he looked at the case, though, the more he became convinced that the five young men in custody were actually innocent. (Click on the audio file below to hear Millard Farmer describe how he came to be involved with the case)
By 1976, Farmer had already developed a reputation as a wiley, stubborn defense attorney. New York Times reporter Tom Wicker once remarked that Farmer talked like a "bullfrog with laryngitis." He would use his flamboyant personality to bring national attention to the case, and bring these young men the freedom they deserved.