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Palmer Singleton, Rest in Power.

With heavy hearts, we share the sad news that former SCHR attorney Palmer Singleton passed away Sunday in Montgomery, where he’d been in hospice care, from cancer. Although we’ll miss him tremendously, we are relieved he’s no longer suffering, and grateful that he spent his last hours in the company of family, including former SCHR attorney Christine Freeman, their son Samuel Singleton-Freeman, and his beloved Alaskan malamutes, Fram and Jigger.  

Palmer grew up near Chicago in Hammond, Indiana. He was named after his grandfather, a supervisor at a steel mill where Palmer worked as a teen, and his father, who practiced law. Palmer was active in labor and antiwar organizing, and in the Merchant Marines, worked on boats that went up and down the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. He spent 14 months in federal prison for refusing to register for the draft when he turned 18 and was quoted in the Congressional Law Review in 1971, when he was just 20 years old, with a conviction that he carried throughout his remarkable life:  

“We must struggle to base a society on sincerity and concern…My hope is that people in America, in China, in the Soviet Union, in all countries will go beyond their government and develop new patterns of living that will allow them to be human. It isn’t easy. Trying to be human is a very revolutionary act. But we can’t make compromises. If we do, we become as unjust as the society we are trying to change.” 

Palmer came to the Southern Center in 1984 to defend the lives of our clients on death row brilliantly and fearlessly. He devoted his life to fighting for people imprisoned and condemned. In a 1996 debate on Democracy Now, he spoke against the brutal injustice of the death penalty:  

“I’ve been around American courts too long to be able to conceive of a trial that is conducted without being handicapped by race, by money, by all kinds of invidious concerns. We confronted the reality of the death penalty after World War Two and beginning in the mid-sixties had a de facto moratorium, and quit executing people, why? Because we were deeply troubled by the extent to which race influenced, if not determined, the decisions we were making…Our hands are dirty as they’ve ever been throughout the history of our government. We can’t afford it, if we care about principles, if we care about values. Only if we are willing to sell our souls.” 

Palmer showed up for his friends, colleagues, and clients in a way that was unmistakably genuine and one of a kind. We carry his legacy of sincerity and concern with us as we continue our work toward freedom, dignity and justice.  

Lauren Sudeall, on Twitter: The world lost a truly wonderful soul last night. When I was a green 1L intern at SCHR almost 19 years ago, he taught me more than I could have imagined. He had an indelible impact on my career and life, and inspired me to be the best lawyer and person I could be. In the years ahead, he was not only a mentor, but a dear friend. He lived life on his own terms, but always for good. And for all of his exterior gruffness, he was full of love. He will be missed deeply, and I know he’s somewhere smoking his pipe on the other side, surrounded by his favorite four-legged companions. Rest in power and peace, Palmer.

Patrick Mulvaney: Palmer was a wonderful person and a force for good. I first met him when I was a law student intern at SCHR 15 years ago, and we’ve been part of the SCHR family together in the years since. I’m smiling as I think about him standing on the sidewalk across from the Poplar Street office, smoking his pipe and brainstorming cases. He was thoughtful, sincere, and funny. He also was a brilliant lawyer, and he cared so much about the people he represented. It was a true privilege to know Palmer, to work with him, to learn from him, to laugh with him, and to spend time with him. I’ll miss him very much.

Patricia Hale: Before SCHR had an advocate group, “Pillars of Justice (Society),” Palmer was SCHR’s Pillar of Justice. Palmer sternly demanded judicial justice, human justice, fairness and equality for our clients. Palmer was an amazing, empathetic, kind co-worker and friend I had the opportunity to meet and know when I first started working at SCHR many moons ago.  He was one of the only folks that could make me laugh and cry (good tears) all at the same time.  My heart is full and heavy right now. Palmer fulfilled his purpose and now is in a serene place. Truly Missed.

Maya Chaudhuri: It was sometimes difficult to tell which was greater, Palmer’s seemingly boundless compassion or his potentially bottomless pit of a stomach for baked goods, but in the end, to know him was to know that it was his compassion.

Sara Totonchi, on Facebook: With a friend like Palmer, there are so many memorable moments. It is impossible for me to think of my earliest days at SCHR without seeing him front and center. Though occasionally mercurial, his love, humor, and loyalty always came through. He taught me so much about always showing up for your people, fighting fiercely and unequivocally, and making sure to laugh at yourself (and your friends) along the way. Palmer loved Max before he was born, and in those first years of his life asked me daily to see new photos and videos. He brought his gentle dogs to meet Max. He insisted when his/our friend Ani DiFranco came to town that she must meet “Mr. Max” before her show. For those of you who knew Palmer, it was during his LottaFrutta days (he always had a favorite haunt). There was nothing that remarkable about the afternoon, but I remember it so fondly. It was hot as hell, he kept Ani and I in giggles as he barked good-naturedly at the staff, and he held Max a lot- as pictured below. Based on the many messages I’ve been getting today, I know I am only one of so many who loved and appreciated Palmer. Here’s to him, surrounded by his dogs, puffing on his pipe, with an infinite supply of Ghirardelli brownies at the ready. Rest in Peace and Power, Palmer Singleton.

May be an image of 3 people, people standing and outdoors
Ani DiFranco, Palmer Singleton, and Max Totonchi at LottaFrutta in the Old Fourth Ward.

Ruth Richardson: Perhaps my most enduring, clear memory of Palmer Singleton was the kindness he showed to my mitigation client, Tony, in the Waynesboro county Jail. Tony was actually shivering it was so cold in the visitation room. Palmer noticed, and without a word, stood up, removed his own jacket and put it around Tony’s shoulders. This act to me is quintessential Palmer. There is no hesitation, he didn’t stop to ask if Tony would like his jacket, he just stood up and did what needed to be done. Voilà. In that moment of kindness, I knew all I would ever need to know about my friend Palmer.

Katharine Huffman: I initially met Palmer over the phone while I was still a law student, working on behalf of a man sentenced to death in Tennessee. Despite his intimidatingly gruff voice, I quickly came to realize he was one of the kindest and funniest people I’d ever met. He was the first to show me what it meant to place the client at the center of everything – and the power of compassion and creativity in the law. When I came to SCHR as an attorney, Palmer’s deep generosity set the standard for everyone around him. This was true not only in his work, but in every aspect of his life: when a friend was ill and needed a temporary home for her two dogs, Palmer couldn’t take them himself because he was already at (possibly over?!) the number of dogs allowed without a kennel license – so he persuaded me that the two beautiful German shepherds would be the perfect companions for me and my beagle Simon. He didn’t hesitate for a second to fly the dogs to Atlanta, arrange for everything they needed, and talk me through a short period of life with three dogs. And it turned out he was right – they were the perfect companions, and I’ve never felt more at ease in the world than on those walks with two German shepherds at my side! Rest in peace and power, dear Palmer – thank you for making the world a better place in so many ways. 

Clive Stafford Smith: “I was really privileged to have Palmer as a mentor when I first got to SCHR (then SPDC) in 1984. He showed great patience both with me and with the KayPro computers (which we thought were the height of technology, and which crammed into something like a medium-sized suitcase the capacity of a small early 2000s mobile phone) as we churned out capital appeals in those faraway days. When I had to get sworn into the Louisiana bar that year, Palmer and I sped down from the Mississippi State Penitentiary to New Orleans, the pipe drooping out of the side of his mouth, along with the sardonic comments about the police who twice pulled us over for speeding. He told me all about his battles with the authorities over the Vietnam War that had ended with him in prison, and forced him to conduct an equally protracted contest with the bar association to be allowed to practice law. Then we got to New Orleans where we were very late for the ceremony and at the wrong location, and Palmer ran several red lights on the way to the correct venue. I clung to the seat to begin with, and then timorously asked if it wouldn’t be better if we arrived a bit late but alive. He admitted he was color blind, an aspect of his character that served our clients spectacularly well when he was arguing an en banc capital appeal in the Eleventh Circuit some months later. He plowed on for fifteen minutes after the red light came on – ignoring (for our clients) the niceties of their rules, as he ever did. It was a joy to have such a colleague and friend, as well as someone whose office was as untidy as mine. Thanks for everything Palmer.