Published on: Friday, August 4, 2023

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor who helped reframe debates around criminal justice, school desegregation and reparations during the 1990s and 2000s, all the while mentoring a new generation of Black lawyers that included President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, died at age 70 on Friday at his home in Odenton, Md (article available here).

Ogletree was known as a brilliant legal mind and a champion for racial equality and social justice in the classroom at Harvard Law School as well as in the courtroom.

"Tree" — as Ogletree was affectionately known to friends —  was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2015. He was as renowned and respected globally as he was close to home. He jetted to South Africa to lend a hand to those drafting the nation's new constitution after apartheid, the same way he jumped in to help generations of law students and young lawyers, as well as a long roster of both indigent and A-list clients.

As a professor at Harvard Law School, whose faculty he joined in 1985, Professor Ogletree expanded its clinical training efforts, especially in public and indigent defense. Soon after arriving he founded the Criminal Justice Institute, which offers students the opportunity to work in juvenile and district courts around Boston.

He then moved to Washington, where he worked in the city’s public defender’s office and taught as an adjunct professor at American University and the University of the District of Columbia. He developed a reputation as a fierce, brilliant defender of indigent clients, and by the time he left to teach at Harvard he was the office’s deputy director.  Even as he settled into academia, Professor Ogletree continued to take on cases.

In February, a new courthouse in Merced, his hometown, was named in his honor.