Worcester lawyer Burton Chandler led groundbreaking civil rights case in metropolis

Burton Chandler didn’t want to become Worcester’s civil liberties attorney. As a young aspiring corporate attorney who has been practicing for about nine years, he challenged the city in the name of social justice. After that, he now says, “Anyone came to me who had any kind of civil liberties against the city of Worcester.”

Worcester’s early civil rights case is worth noting in the first Black History Month since George Floyd’s murder, after a year of national protests against Black Lives Matter. The deaths of George Floyd and many other black men by law enforcement agencies have forced the country to recognize how skin color can drastically affect life experiences, especially when interacting with the police.

At a time when police brutality had not been reported in the Commonwealth, Chandler represented two young African American men and their white brother-in-law and brought charges against seven Worcester police officers of excessive violence and inappropriate violence. The Hazard et al. v Rida et al. The trial ended in the spring of 1971, and in late 1972 a decision was made in favor of his clients. “(It) has certainly had the greatest publicity and press, and it was the first case of its kind in Worcester, Mass history,” Chandler recalled.

The case landed on his lap in October 1968 when Chandler’s wife Harriette, now Worcester 1st District Senator, returned from a meeting. “The place and purpose for [the meeting] got lost in the trash can of history, ”said Chandler. “She met some black kids who had been beaten up by the police and couldn’t get a lawyer to represent them. She told them, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll give you my husband.'”

At first, Chandler said he wasn’t too concerned about volunteering as he planned to ask a colleague who was a trial attorney to take the case. When the other attorney refused to take action against the Worcester Police Department, Chandler had no choice but to do it himself. His law firm’s senior partners cleared the way for him, despite declaring that his clients could not pay his fees. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said, the surprise evident years later. “At that time, law firms were not doing pro bono work for minority groups,” unlike today, when this is viewed as good advertising.

The main customer was Aaron Hazard, a 22 year old honorable discharge veteran who worked as a mail carrier for the USPS. His brother was five years younger and his brother-in-law was 20 years old. They were accompanied by Hazard’s friend Kenneth Troy, who left before he could be arrested and was later referred to as the “lead witness” by Chandler.

Hazard, his brother-in-law, and Troy were waiting to collect Hazard’s younger brother from a friend’s house when the police pulled up and asked what they were doing in this neighborhood, Troy said. “We explained it, but the cop said we were going to give him a cop (expletive) and he also told us he had a short fuse and the next thing we knew billy clubs swing.”

They were accused of being drunk and disturbing the peace by disorderly behavior, but were asked to drive home alone – unusual as people who are visibly drunk are usually not allowed to drive home. When they refused, they were beaten on the scene, arrested, and repeatedly beaten at the police station in front of other officers who did not prevent the violence.

Police officials alleged the arrest was peaceful, but plaintiffs were forced to seek medical help in a hospital for serious injuries immediately after being rescued by Hazard’s wife and their local pastor. Hazard recalls how the nurse in the hospital took one look at her injuries and assumed they were in a car accident. The same nurse would later testify to the condition of her injuries. Police steadfastly denied beating the young men, claiming “that in about 20 minutes after we left the station and got to the hospital, we either inflicted injuries or something similarly strange,” Hazard said.

All three young men lost their jobs while they recovered, and the medical records and statements from doctors and nurses matched what she said. A broken Billy Club that was dropped on the scene also provided material evidence of the intensity of the attack during the arrest. The club was picked up by Troy, who returned to the scene to look for Hazard’s broken glasses. “[The officers] couldn’t explain the broken Billy Club, ”said Chandler.

The Worcester District Court trial was a jury case in which the three young men were found guilty not of drunkenness but of disturbing the peace and were fined $ 10 each. The outcome was unsatisfactory for both Chandler and his clients, who felt that the officers should be held accountable for their actions. “At that point, I made up my mind to file a complaint in Boston Federal District Court alleging civil rights violations and inappropriate violence, or popularly ‘police brutality’,” said Chandler.

Despite the generosity of his company, Chandler knew that money was still a serious problem. He consulted the Worcester NAACP, which provided the entire contents of their bank account to cover the costs of the plaintiffs.

In contrast to the previous proceedings, the proceedings before the Federal Supreme Court were led by a judge instead of a full jury. On the day of the trial, Chandler arrived “to see the entire city legal department at the defendants’ table. “That got my adrenaline pumping.”

Chandler had requested that all witnesses be confiscated so that no one would hear the previous testimony. Hazard said this was an artful move as officials couldn’t coordinate their stories. “A police officer comes in, gives his report, sits down and listens to the testimony below – with all the conflicting information, it was literally a case of cops holding their heads to the gaps in their stories.”

Chandler had heard a city official suggested that Chandler might be too afraid to perform because of his inexperience. But Troy said they always believed in Chandler. “He asked the right questions and looked in the right places.”

After 19 months, the judge ruled in favor of Chandler’s clients. “We got nervous,” admitted Hazard.

But the story didn’t end there.

The city announced that it would not pay the plaintiffs’ damages and alleged that the individual police officers were responsible for the cost of money. Chandler knew that getting the money from the cops wouldn’t be easy. “So I did a search and found that the three policemen who were asked to pay had their own homes,” he said. “So I hooked up their houses.”

His unprecedented move to raise a lien on their homes outraged the WPD.

The matter was brought before the city council, which eventually agreed to pay with interest.

In retrospect, Chandler said it was “difficult to tell if the police really learned anything”. But he said the case sent a clear message and “the city has never been particularly kind to me after that.”

This was even more true of Hazard and his brother, who said they had endured subsequent police harassment. “The big joke was everywhere I went, I had a police escort,” said Hazard. “Everywhere we went we were followed – to the point that neither of us would go anywhere alone.”

As a senior attorney on many major civil rights cases in the city, Chandler was dedicated to upholding and defending the rights and freedoms of individuals, but never stopped practicing commercial law. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts recognized Chandler with the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award.

His other cases included gender discrimination in the school system and in the military. After the police case, “it became known that I was a civil rights attorney,” he said.

For the most memorable of his civil rights cases, Chandler was delighted to see the young men flourish in the years that followed. “After the Fall, both brothers went to Worcester State College on Black Community Scholarships and had very successful careers. One was the vice president of an airline. “

Fifty years before the BLM and Defund the Police movement, Chandler successfully prosecuted a case of police brutality in federal court, and the precedent he set was key to holding law enforcement accountable.

“We have taken our case as a role model over the years when we have met someone who was the victim of the police that something really can be done,” said Hazard.

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