Temple adjunct professor and attorney Michael Coard agreed to defend alleged cop killer John Lewis almost immediately.
Lewis is facing charges of murder, assault and theft in connection with the Oct. 31, 2007, fatal shooting of Officer Charles Cassidy inside a West Oak Lane Dunkin’ Donuts.
When the story broke that Lewis had been apprehended for the murder of Officer Cassidy, Coard, who teaches Hip-Hop and the Black Culture at Temple, received calls from a local community group and the suspect’s family members asking him to defend Lewis.
“I knew that because of that shock and outrage that I felt, that the public at large would be more shocked and more outraged,” Coard said regarding his decision to take the case. “It’s extremely important for defense attorneys to step up to the plate when there’s a chance, when there’s a potential, when there’s a probability that the lynch mob mentality will give way to due process.
“It’s not just a guy shooting and killing a cop. It’s a young black thug killing a heroic, white police officer,” Coard said. “Officer Cassidy was and is a hero. I knew folks would see that, but along with the racial complications, instead of saying ‘Hey, lets let the system work’, folks are going to be calling for blood, ready to string this guy up.”
After being arrested in Miami six days later, Lewis confessed to killing Cassidy before police and news cameras.
“A win is not a not guilty [verdict]. A win is maybe getting it from first-degree death to first-degree life,” Coard said of the trial’s prospects. “What did he confess to? Did he say he confessed to first-degree murder? Did he say he confessed to second-degree murder?”
While Coard acknowledged the inevitable racial undertones the case has assumed, he said class is more relevant than anything.
“When it comes to the law, it’s more about class than it is about race,” he said. “In America, you can get as much justice as you can pay for.”
Coard grew up in a single-mother household in North Philadelphia before attending Cheyney University to become an English teacher. It wasn’t until he got a summer job at the Prisoners’ Rights Council during his sophomore year, helping ex-convicts reenter society that he was imbued with the desire to become a lawyer.
“I hated it,” Coard said of his summer job. “I was a snob, an elitist. But as I began to work with them, I realized, ‘Damn, there but for the grace of God go I.’ It was because of these cautiously conscious and self-rehabilitated ex-cons that I decided to go to law school, and it was the best decision I ever made.”
After receiving his law degree from the Ohio State University Law School, he went on to work for State Sen. Hardy Williams and then for attorney Charles Bowser, the man credited with preventing then-Mayor Frank Rizzo for running for a disputed third term. Since Bowser retired, Coard has worked as a sole practitioner.
“He’s obviously guilty. Of course, he legally needs representation, but it’s just done for. He’s guilty,” said Courtney Gregory, an international business and accounting major. “To me, it’s immoral to represent him, but he needs representation.”
“I think everybody deserves a fair trial,” said chemistry major Benyam Alemneh. “This guy killed somebody, which is wrong, but if I was a lawyer I would represent him. We are all criminals in some way.”
The next court date is a pre-trial hearing on March 4, where the court will decide whether or not the death sentence is applicable to the case.
Sam Benesby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.