Branton, the only 1948 black graduate of the Northwestern University law school, already had decades of civil rights law experience when he became co-lead defense counsel at Davis' trial.
The next year, she was charged in a 1970 armed takeover of a Marin County, Calif., courtroom. A 17-year-old boy smuggled guns into the San Rafael courtroom and armed three convicts. They tried to drive away with a judge, prosecutor and three women jurors as hostages. Police opened fire and in the melee the judge, the teenager and two of the convicts died.
Davis was charged with murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy because she had bought the smuggled guns -- including a shotgun that had been taped to the judge during the escape attempt.
She fled and was placed on the FBI's 10 most wanted list. After her arrest, the case became a cause celebre among progressives. She claimed the guns had been stolen from her, and eventually was acquitted by an all-white jury. Branton was instrumental in the decision, Davis told the Times on Thursday.
On the trial's closing day, he showed the jury a drawing of his client wrapped in chains, then ripped it away to reveal another of Davis unbound and urged jurors to "pull away these chains as I have pulled away that piece of paper." He then attacked the prosecution case and asked jurors to "understand what it means to be black." "Certainly his brilliant closing argument had a profound impact on the jury," Davis said.
Branton had been involved in civil rights cases dating to the 1940s. He helped singer Nat King Cole integrate the wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood of Hancock Park, defended Communists in the McCarthy era and won police misconduct cases decades before Rodney King.
"He was a hero of mine," said Connie Rice, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney who helped lead efforts to reform the LAPD after the King beating.
"All the things I've done, Leo Branton did 50 years before I even thought about going to law school," she told the Times. "He saw himself not as a private practitioner out to make money for himself but as a lawyer with the skills to be a champion for black liberation."
Branton practiced law until early this year, and won his last case involving a dispute with a credit card company, his son said.