Obituary: William Kunstler

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The Independent Online
William Kunstler was a brave and flamboyant radical lawyer whose clients included some of America's most controversial characters, from Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers to Jack Ruby, the man who murdered President Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

A legendary figure to the world of 1960s radicals, Kunstler was still at it in his seventies, defending such clients as Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is on trial for a conspiracy linked to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, in New York, and Colin Ferguson, who killed six people and wounded 19 others when he opened fire on commuters on a Long Island suburban train.

Kunstler was admired for his guts and tactical skill in court. But he was often accused, even by his admirers, of being a show-off and publicity seeker. That was one charge he did not deny. "To some extent that has the ring of truth," he acknowledged. "I enjoy the spotlight, as most humans do, but it's not my whole raison d'etre. My purpose is to keep the state from becoming all-domineering, all-powerful."

His courtroom antics might outrage conventional lawyers and many dispassionate onlookers. But there was a purpose to them. In his most famous case, the trial of the so-called "Chicago Seven" in 1969, Kunstler defied and mocked Judge Julius so openly that the judge sentenced him to four years and 13 days for contempt. One hundred and sixty-eight of the counts were dismissed on appeal, and Kunstler did not serve a minute in prison on that occasion, though on several other occasions he was sent to jail, though never for longer than overnight. The trial, he contended, was political, and in that case "the court becomes not just a place to grind out a decision but also a place to educate the public and dramatise the contradictions between what the law preaches and what it practises." Certainly Kunstler well knew the value of publicity. Whenever - which was not unusual - he was cited for contempt or rebuked by a court, press releases snowed down on the media giving his version of the matter.

Born in New York City in 1919, Kunstler was a student at Yale and entered Columbia Law School, as he said with characteristic self-deprecation, "for all the wrong reasons: because it offered status, prestige and the promise of a reasonably high income".

After military service he was admitted to the Bar in 1948, and practised law in a conventional manner until in 1961 he was briefed to represent a group of Freedom Riders, the racially mixed demonstrators who were beaten and nearly killed when they tested Southern state laws which refused to allow black and white passengers to sit together on buses.

From then on he was in demand as a defence lawyer in civil rights cases, and he defended a number of African American leaders, including Martin Luther King and the Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell in more or less politically motivated proceedings.

The case which made Kunstler's national reputation was the trial of the Chicago Seven. After the fracas at the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination convention, charges of conspiracy to incite rioting were brought against an odd assortment of defendants, including Bobby Seale, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party; Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis of Students for a Democratic Society; Dave Dellinger, a veteran pacifist; and the "Yippies", Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, specialists in goading the Establishment with tongue-in-cheek put-ons.

With a deep gravelly voice and a New York accent, and with glasses perched on his mane of white hair, Kunstler was an unpredictable and formidable figure in court. Even an admirer like the radical journalist Andre Kopkind thought he was over the top at times: "He's too rhetorical, somehow inauthentic," Kopkind wrote of Kunstler's manner in the Chicago trial. Kunstler's summing up was certainly in a rhetorical vein: "The hangman's rope never solved a single problem," he said, though the prosecution was not asking and could not have asked for death sentences in the case. "You can crucify a Jesus, poison a Socrates, hang a John Brown or a Nathan Hale, kill a Che Guevara, assassinate a John F. Kennedy or a Martin Luther King, but the problems remain."

When Judge Hoffmann sentenced Dellinger to prison, Kunstler stood before the bench sobbing, his arms outstretched. "My God!" he cried, "What are you doing to us? My life is nothing. Put me in jail now, I beg of you."

From that point on, however, Kunstler was the first choice as defence lawyer for political radicals, African American and Native American leaders and other unpopular figures who had come up against the law. Kunstler also defended an alleged Mafia don, John Gotti, and many others. In 1978 he claimed, "I only defend those whose goals I share. I'm not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love."

That statement was to be thrown back in his face after he agreed to defend El Sayyid Nosair on charges of killing in 1991 Rabbi Meir Kahane, a Zionist extremist. "I don't think I ever felt as detested as when I joined the defence team of El Sayyid Nosair," Kunstler wrote in his autobiography. "Because I am Jewish, the criticism against me for defending Nosair was particularly vehement." He amazed observers when he persuaded the jury to acquit Nosair, even though the accused was seen fleeing the murder scene carrying a gun. Nosair was convicted of illegal possession of the weapon and of assaulting the officer who arrested him - but not, thanks to Kunstler, of a murder many people were convinced he had committed.

Undeterred, Kunstler subsequently defended three other Arabs accused of terrorist offences: Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman; Nosair's cousin Ibrahim Elgabrowny, also a suspect in the Trade Centre bombing; and Siddig Ibrahium Siddig Ali, said to have been the ringleader in a plot to bomb the United Nations and other targets in New York. He also recently persuaded the prosecutor to drop charges against Malcolm X's daughter Qubilah Shabaz, who had been accused of hiring a killer (who was in fact a government informer) to kill the anti-Semitic black leader Louis Farrakhan.

Kunstler was "an amazing man," his law partner Ronald Kuby said, "and he lived his life as fully and completely and happily as anybody can do." Recently, however, after the death of several of his famous clients, including the Black Panther Huey Newton, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (all of whom he obituarised for the Independent), Kunstler wrote of a "growing sense of isolation, a feeling that my friends and comrades of that marvellous era were dying around me and that perhaps I had lived too long".

Godfrey Hodgson

William Moses Kunstler, lawyer: born New York City 7 July 1919; called to New York Bar 1948; called to Washington DC Bar 1958; partner, Kunstler, Kunstler, Hyman and Goldberg 1949-72; married 1943 Lotte Rosen- berger (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1976), 1976 Margaret Cohen (two daughters); died New York City 4 September 1995.