Digging Up Alton Maddox

His rest in peace is left up to history.



When the history books are written about confrontational African American defense attorney Alton H. Maddox Jr., his most rabid critics will accuse him of masterminding the assailable late 1980s hoax that 15-year-old Tawana Brawley was gang-raped by white men and left to die in a garbage bag of feces.

That, they will say, is his shameful and lasting legacy, bar none.          

But this longstanding badmouthing of Maddox may yet be relegated to the trash heap of history, as was the case of the five Black boys who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989. Twenty-five years of combined multiple prison sentences later, those five young men were found to be innocent and set free. Such was the restorative hope that some mourners held out for Maddox as well, during homegoing eulogies at his funeral, on May 1, in the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Maddox died on April 23 at age 77, from a fall in a nursing home in the Bronx.

Among the most ardent promoters of this posthumous would-be redemption was Yusef Salaam, one of “the Exonerated Five,” who said that had his defense been left up to Maddox (who’d successfully sprung Michael Briscoe, one of seven original suspects, without even going to trial), he might have been acquitted.

And the rest would have been history, stressed former attorney C. Vernon Mason, who shares the invidious notoriety, along with Maddox and the reverend Al Sharpton, of parroting Brawley’s story of racist rape, refusing to drag her before a grand jury, and assisting her in becoming a fugitive from justice. Disbarred for professional misconduct (not related to the Brawley affair and now referred to by the title the Reverend Dr. Deacon), Mason ministers at Abyssinian. On this solemn morning, he referenced from the pulpit the story of “Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old African American sister who was gang-raped by white men in Abbeville, Alabama, in 1944, while coming from church.” He added, “Despite hearing the men’s confessions, two juries refused to indict them for their crimes.” He reminded the audience that it was Rosa Parks, then an NAACP investigator (and future mother of the Civil Rights Movement), who launched a national campaign to protest “this miscarriage of justice,” with support from prominent Black thought leaders W.E.B. Dubois and Langston Hughes.


Maddox was a self-anointed Black rage translator.


In an attempt to point out striking similarities between the treatment of suspects in the Taylor and Brawley cases, Mason frettingly insinuated that Brawley, too, had identified her attackers. But even after she attracted unlikely supporters in top-notch lawyers such as Maddox and himself, and civil rights advocates of Sharpton’s stature, a grand jury concluded the accused “had no connection with any incident involving Tawana Brawley.” (In fact, one of the accused, upstate assistant district attorney Steven Pagones, won defamation suits against Maddox, Mason, Sharpton, and Brawley.) 

I was also invited to pay tribute to Maddox, and recalled our chance meeting in 1978 on the Harlem block where I lived, and where Maddox worked as the newly appointed director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers Juvenile Defense Project. Little did I know I would later become an accidental collaborator with Maddox. I was a staff writer at the Amsterdam News in December 1986 when Michael Griffith, an immigrant from my home country of Trinidad and Tobago, was chased to his death by a gang of white youths, in Howard Beach, Queens. As Michael’s brother Christopher attested to at the service before I spoke, it was I, appreciating Maddox’s legal tenacity, who handpicked him for one of the biggest cases of his career.

In the book I am currently writing, which examines Maddox’s seminal impact on the Black protest movement and American race relations during the last quarter of the 20th century, I unravel the real reason behind the suspension of the once formidable member of the bar from practicing law, and his license being held in abeyance for 33 grueling years, up until his death. That disciplinary action remains one of the longest in U.S. legal history foisted on a Black lawyer, arising partly out of the noncriminal offense of zealously advocating on behalf of his client.

An undisputed Godfather of the nascent movement for Black lives, Alton Maddox boasted a reputation as the puissant “attorney-at-war” who upended New York’s criminal justice system unlike any other before or after him. As a self-anointed Black rage translator, Maddox invented the “Maddox Method of Practicing Law,” a quasi mindfuck that is part ad-libbed Black liberation lawyering (what imitators today call “asymmetric courtroom warfare”) and part grassroots street-rabblerousing in the interest of justice.


Maddox bucked traditional decorum with a clarity of purpose: You just never knew when he’d jump on the backs of rogue court officers participating in the lynch-mob assault of a hapless handcuffed and shackled defendant.


“To say that he was an Attorney at War is an understatement,” Sharpton said in a prepared statement issued via his National Action Network, without explaining his absence from attending the funeral of “the country boy lawyer” who convinced a jury to acquit Sharpton on 67 counts of tax evasion. Maddox skillfully argued that then-state attorney general Robert Abrams (who had earlier been appointed a special prosecutor in the Brawley case) had waged a vendetta against him, Sharpton, and Mason. “Alton spared no one when it came to seeking justice for the causes and clients he believed in,” wrote Sharpton. “He had a mind that could figure out arguments in any situation that were unique and original in thought.” 

A white former adversary who Maddox once defeated in a heated courtroom battle told me (for my book) that Maddox was reviled for a loutish style that bordered between genius and delusional. Other veteran white prosecutors called him “the mad man of 100 Centre Street,” the iconic criminal court building in Manhattan where he usually raised novel legal arguments that called into question the ethics of the court, especially in meting out justice to Blacks while neglecting to acknowledge the vestiges of Jim Crow inequities.

In the sanctimonious setting of the courtroom, Maddox bucked traditional decorum with a clarity of purpose: You just never knew when he’d jump on the backs of rogue court officers participating in the lynch-mob assault of a hapless handcuffed and shackled defendant. And then, later on, with a snap of his fingers, he would summon a thunder of fire-breathing legal dragons (including future mayor David N. Dinkins) to commandeer the judge’s bench over an injudicious ruling.

Maddox did so in revolutionary fashion in 1985, at his own subsequent trial for instigating an infamous courtroom brawl a year earlier involving Willie Bosket, the convicted “baby-face killer” responsible for juvenile offenders being tried as adults in New York. Maddox represented himself and was acquitted.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, together with Mason and Sharpton, Maddox also dispensed an elixir for reinvigorating a lackluster civil rights movement. Similar to the explosive ingredients that nurtured his legal victories, it combined mega doses of activist jurisprudence, left-wing agitprop, and restive civil disobedience. His undying mission, he told me, was to “give the system a taste of Black magic brinkmanship” that in short shrift sent the whole shebang overboard screaming.   ❖

Peter Noel writes mainly about social, racial, and criminal justice, focusing on police violence, culture, poverty, and politics. He is the author of Why Blacks Fear ‘America’s Mayor’: Reporting Race, Crime and Black Activist Politics Under Rudy Giuliani.




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