Articles, Books, Documents, Periodicals, Audio-Visual
Search the Library
Search the Directory
Your support makes our work possible. Please Donate Today
William Moses Kunstler (July 7, 1919 - September 4, 1995) was an American self-described "radical lawyer" and civil rights activist, known for his controversial clients. Kunstler was a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the co-founder of the Law Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the "leading gathering place for radical lawyers in the country".
Kunstler's successful defense of the "Chicago Seven" made him the most famous and controversial lawyer in the United States. Kunstler is also well-known for his frequent defense of members of the Catonsville Nine, Black Panther Party, Weather Underground Organization, the Attica Prison rioters, and the American Indian Movement. He also won a de facto segregation case regarding the District of Columbia's public schools and "disinterred, singlehandedly" the concept of federal removal jurisdiction in the 1960s. Kunstler refused to defend right-wing groups like the Minutemen, on the grounds that: "I only defend those whose goals I share. I'm not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love."
He was a polarizing figure: many on the right wished to see him disbarred; many of the left admired him as a "symbol of a certain kind of radical lawyer." Even some other civil rights lawyers regarded Kunstler as a "publicity hound and a hit-and-run lawyer" who "brings cases on Page 1 and the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, Inc. wins them on Page 68." Legal writer Sidney Zion quipped that Kunstler was "one of the few lawyers in town who knows how to talk to the press. His stories always check out and he's not afraid to talk to you, and he's got credibilityâ€”although you've got to ask sometimes, 'Bill, is it really true?'"
The son of a physician, Kunstler was born to a Jewish family in New York City and attended DeWitt Clinton High School. He was educated at Yale College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and Columbia University Law School. While in school, Kunstler was an avid poet, and represented Yale in the Glascock Prize competition at Mount Holyoke College.
Kunstler served in the U.S. Army during World War II in the Pacific theater, attaining the rank of Major, and received the Bronze Star. While in the army, he was noted for his theatric portrayals in the Fort Monmouth Dramatic Association. He was admitted to the bar in New York in 1948 and began practicing law. Kunstler went through R.H. Macy's executive training program in the late 1940s and practiced family and small business law in the 1950s before entering civil rights litigation in the 1960s. He was an associate professor of law at New York Law School (1950â€“1951).
Kunstler won honorable mention for the National Legal Aid Association's press award in 1957 for his series of radio broadcasts on WNEW: "The Law on Trial." At WNEW, Kunstler also conducted interviews on controversial topics, such as the Alger Hiss case, on a program called "Counterpoint."
Kunstler first made headlines in 1957 defending William Worthy, a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American, who was one of forty-two Americans who had their passports seized after violating the State Department's travel ban on Communist China (after attending a Communist youth conference in Moscow). Kunstler refused a State Department compromise which would have returned Worthy's passport if he agreed to cease visiting Communist countries, a condition Worthy considered unconstitutional.
Kunstler played an important role as a civil rights lawyer in the 1960s, traveling to many of the segregated battlegrounds to work to free those who had been jailed. Working on behalf of the ACLU, Kunstler defended the "Freedom Riders" in Mississippi in 1961. Kunstler filed for a writ of habeas corpus with Sidney Mize, a federal judge in Biloxi, and appealed to the Fifth Circuit; he also filed similar pleas in state courts. Judge Leon Hendrick in Hinds County refused Kunstler's motion to cancel the mass appearance (involving hundreds of miles of travel) of all 187 convicted riders. The riders were convicted in a bench trial in Jackson city and appealed to a county jury trial, where Kunstler argued that the county systematically discriminated against African-American jurors.
In 1962, Kunstler took part in efforts to integrate public parks and libraries in Albany, Georgia. Later that year, he published The Case for Courage (modeled on President Kennedy's Profiles in Courage) highlighting the efforts of other lawyers who risked their careers for controversial clients as well as similar acts by public servants. At the time of the publication, Kunstler was already well-known for his work with the Freedom Riders, his book on the Caryl Chessman case, and his radio coverage of trials. Kunstler also joined a group of lawyers criticizing the application of Alabama's civil libel laws and spoke at a rally against HUAC.
In 1963, for the Gandhi Society of New York, Kunstler filed to remove the cases of more than 100 arrested African-American demonstrators from the Danville Corporation Court to the Charlottesville District Court, under a Reconstruction Era statute. Although the district judge remanded the cases to city court, he dissolved the city's injunction against demonstrations. In doing so, Judge Thomas J. Michie rejected a Justice Department amicus curiae brief urging the removal to create a test case for the statute. Kunstler appealed to the Fourth Circuit. That year Kunstler also sued public housing authorities in Westchester County.
In 1964, Kunstler defended a group of four accused of kidnapping a white couple, and succeeded in getting the alleged weapons thrown out of evidence, as they could not be positively identified as ones used. That year he also challenged Mississippi's unpledged elector law as well as racial segregation in primary elections; he also defended three members of the Blood Brothers, a Harlem gang, charged with murder.
Kunstler went to St. Augustine, Florida in 1964 during the demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King and Dr. Robert B. Hayling that resulted in the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kunstler himself brought the first federal case under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which allowed the removal of cases from county court to be appealed; the defendants were protestors at the 1964 New York World's Fair.
He was a director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from 1964 to 1972, when he became a member of the ACLU National Council. In 1966 he co-founded the Center for Constitutional Rights. Kunstler also worked with the National Lawyers Guild.
In 1965, Kunstler's firm Kunstler, Kunstler, and Kinoy was asked to defend Jack Ruby by his brother Earl, but dropped the case because they "did not wish to be in a situation where we have to fight to get into the case". Ruby was eventually permitted to replace his original defense team with Kunstler, who got him a new trial. In 1966, he also defended an arsonist who burned down a Jewish Community Center, killing twelve, because he was not provided a lawyer before he signed a confession.
Kunstler's other notable clients include: Salvador Agron, H. Rap Brown, Lenny Bruce, Stokely Carmichael, the Catonsville Nine, Angela Davis, Larry Davis, Gregory Lee Johnson, Martin Luther King, Gary McGivern, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Filiberto Ojeda Rios, Assata Shakur, Lemuel Smith, Morton Sobell, Wayne Williams, and Michael X.
Kunstler gained national renown for defending the "Chicago Seven" (originally "Chicago Eight"), in a five month trial in 1969-1970, against charges of conspiring to incite riots in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Under cross-examination, Kunstler got a key police witness to contradict his previous testimony and admit that he had not witnessed Jerry Rubin, but had rather been given his name two weeks later by the FBI. Another prosecution witness, photographer Louis Salzberg, admitted under Kunstler's cross-examination that he was still on the payroll of the FBI.
The trial was marked by frequent clashes between Kunstler and U.S. Attorney Thomas Foran, with Kunstler taking the opportunity to accuse the government of failing to "realize the extent of antiwar sentiment". Kunstler also sparred with Judge Julius Hoffman, on one occasion remarking (with respect to the number of federal marshals): "this courtroom has the appearance of an armed camp. I would note that the Supreme Court has ruled that the appearance of an armed camp is a reversible error". During one heated exchange, Kunstler informed Hoffman that his entry on "Who's Who" was three times longer than the judges, to which the judge replied "I hope you get a better obituary". Kunstler and co-defense attorney Leonard Weinglass were cited for contempt (the convictions were later overturned, unanimously, by the Seventh Circuit). If Hoffman's contempt conviction had been allowed to stand, Kunstler would have been imprisoned for an unprecedented four years.
The progress of the trialâ€”which had many aspects of guerrilla theatre--was covered on the nightly news and made Kunstler the best-known lawyer in the country, and something of a folk hero. After much deadlock, the jury acquitted all seven on the conspiracy charge, but convicted five of violating the Federal Antiriot Act. The Seventh Circuit overturned all the convictions on November 21, 1972 due to Hoffman's refusal to let defense lawyers question the prospective jurors on racial and cultural biases; the Justice Department did not retry the case.
Kunstler arrived in Pine Ridge, South Dakota on March 4, 1973 to draw up the demands of the American Indian Movement (AIM) members involved in the Wounded Knee incident. Kunstler, who headed the defense, called the trial "the most important Indian trial of the 20th century", attempting to center the defense on the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868). Kunstler's team represented Russell Means and Dennis Banks, two of the leaders of the occupation.
Kunstler objected to the heavy trial security on the grounds that it could prejudice the jury and Judge Fred J. Nichol agreed to ease measures. The trial was moved to Minnesota. Two authors and three Sioux were called as defense witnesses, mostly focusing on the historical (and not-so-historical) injustice against the Sioux on the part of the U.S. government, shocking the prosecution.
In 1975, Kunstler again defended AIM members in the slaying of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, not far from the site of the Wounded Knee incident. At the trial in 1976, Kunstler subpoenaed prominent government officials to testify about the existence of a Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) against Native American activists. District Judge Edward J. McManus approved Kunstler's attempt to subpoena FBI director Clarence M. Kelley.
In 1974-1975, Kunstler defended a prisoner charged with killing a guard during the Attica Prison riot. Under cross-examination, Kunstler forced Correction Officer Donald Melven to retract his sworn identification of John Hill, Kunstler's client, and Charles Pernasilice (defended by Richard Miller), admitting he still retained "slight" doubts that he confessed to investigators at the time of the incident. Kunstler focused on pointing out that all the other prosecution witnesses were testifying under reduced-sentencing agreements and called five prison inmates as defense witnesses (Miller called none), who testified that other prisoners hit the guard.
Despite Justice King's repeated warnings to Kunstler to "be careful, sir", Kunstler quickly became "the star of the trial, the man the jurors watch most attentively, and the lawyer whose voice carries most forcefully". Although the prosecution was careful to avoid personal confrontation with Kunstler, who frequently charmed the jury with jokes, on one instance Kunstler provoked a shouting match with the lead prosecutor, allegedly to wake up a sleeping jury member. The jury convicted Hill of murder and Pernasilice of attempted assault. When Kunstler protested that the defendants would risk being murdered due to the judges remanding them, King threatened to send Kunstler with them. New York Governor Hugh Carey granted executive clemency to Hill and the other inmates in 1976, even though Hill's name was not on the recommended list of pardons delivered to the governor and his appeals were still pending.
From 1983 until Kunstler's death in 1995, he employed future radio personality Ron Kuby as a junior partner. The two took on controversial civil rights and criminal cases, including cases where they represented Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, head of the Egyptian-based terrorist group Gama'a al-Islamiyah, responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Colin Ferguson, the man responsible for the LIRR shootings, who would later reject Kuby & Kunstler's legal counsel and choose to represent himself at trial; Qubilah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, accused of plotting to murder Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam; Glenn Harris, a New York public school teacher who absconded with a fifteen-year-old girl for two months; Nico Minardos, a flamboyant actor indicted by Rudy Giuliani for conspiracy to ship arms to Iran; Darrell Cabey, one of the persons shot by Bernard Goetz; and associates of the Gambino crime family.
Kunstler's defense of the three clerics made him "more visible, more venerated, more vilified than ever".
During the first Gulf War, they represented dozens of American soldiers who refused to fight and claimed conscientious objector status. They also represented El-Sayyid Nosair, the alleged assassin of the late Jewish leader Rabbi Meir Kahane who was acquitted of murder charges.
During the 1994-95 television season, Kunstler starred as himself in an episode of Law & Order titled "White Rabbit". It was based on the 1971 shooting of a policeman in connection with the robbery of a Boston Brinks truck by members of the Weatherman Underground.
In late 1995, Kunstler died in New York of heart failure at the age of 76. In his last major public appearance, at the commencement ceremonies for the University at Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning, Kunstler lambasted the death penalty, saying, "We have become the charnel house of the Western world with reference to executions; the next closest to us is the Republic of South Africa."
William Kunstler was survived by his wife Margaret Ratner Kunstler and daughters Karin Kunstler Goldman, Jane Drazek, Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler and grandchildren Jessica Goldman, Daniel Goldman and Andrew Drazek. Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler have recently completed a documentary about their father entitled William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe which had its world premiere screening as part of the Documentary Competition of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Karin Goldman is currently the charities bureau section chief at the attorney general's office of New York.
This article is based on one or more articles in Wikipedia, with modifications and additional content contributed by
Connexions editors. This article, and any information from Wikipedia, is covered by a
Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA) and the
GNU Free Documentation
We welcome your help in improving and expanding the content of Connexipedia articles, and in correcting errors. Connexipedia is not a wiki: please contact Connexions by email if you wish to contribute. We are also looking for contributors interested in writing articles on topics, persons, events and organizations related to social justice and the history of social change movements.
For more information contact Connexions