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Defense Lawyer William Kunstler Dead at 76

September 4, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ William Kunstler, the raspy-voiced lawyer who proudly spoke out for the politically unpopular in a controversial career defending clients including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Chicago Seven, Jack Ruby, John Gotti and others, died Monday. He was 76.

Kunstler died of a heart attack at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been hospitalized since Aug. 28. He had a pacemaker installed on Aug. 7.

Once dubbed ``the most hated lawyer in America″ by Vanity Fair magazine, Kunstler saw himself as a legal paladin, an advocate for outcasts and pariahs. Critics depicted him as a showboat and publicity seeker.

``To some extent that has the ring of truth,″ he once said. ``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.″

Kunstler’s client list read like a Who’s Who of the American court: the defendants in the Attica prison riot, some of the Black Panthers, the Berrigan brothers’ draft protest, Indian activist Leonard Peltier, flag burner Gregory Johnson, District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry, Central Park rapist Yusef Salaam.

He handled some cases only fleetingly. Marlon Brando fired him from his son Christian’s murder-defense team after Kunstler publicly compared the judge to a toad. Colin Ferguson eventually rejected Kunstler’s insanity defense that ``black rage″ drove him to shoot and kill six passengers on New York commuter train in 1993. Ferguson claimed he was innocent, represented himself and was convicted.

But Kunstler was a respected lawyer and had some remarkable successes. He helped clear Egyptian immigrant El Sayyid Nosair of charges that he assassinated militant Rabbi Meir Kahane, despite prosecution eyewitnesses who testified that he had done it. Nosair was convicted only on a weapons’s count.

And he persuaded prosecutors to set aside charges against Qubilah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, who had been accused of hiring a government informant to kill Louis Farrakhan.

But the highlight of his career came when he defended the Chicago Seven against charges of conspiring to incite riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Courtroom decorum went out the window as the defendants and their lawyers battled with Judge Julius J. Hoffman.

``In a political trial such as this one, the court becomes not just a place to grind out a decision but also a place to educate the public and dramatize the contradictions between what the law preaches and what it practices,″ Kunstler said at the time.

The jury acquitted the seven defendants of conspiracy and found five guilty of incitement. While the jury was deliberating however, the judge handed down his own verdict _ finding all seven defendants, Kunstler and his co-counsel guilty of contempt on a total of 160 counts.

Kunstler was sentenced on 24 of the counts to four years and 13 days. Most of the counts were dismissed on appeal and he did not serve any time.

Kunstler did go to jail on occasion, but never longer than overnight. And publicity was usually the reason. He was always quick to advise the media of his court appearances, to issue press releases about his cases.

In 1978 he declared ``I only defend those whose goals I share. I’m not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love.″

Those words brought sharp criticism when he took the case of Nosair and later Nosair’s cousin, Ibrahim A. Elgabrowny, a suspect in the World Trade Center bombing, and Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, termed the ringleader in a plot to bomb the United Nations and other New York City targets.

The son of a middle-class Jewish parents, William Moses Kunstler was born July 7, 1919 and grew up in Manhattan where his father was a doctor. At Yale he majored in French, was a varsity swimmer and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

He received a Bronze Star for his service as a signal intelligence officer in the Pacific in World War II, then went to Columbia Law School.

During the 1950s he married, moved to suburbia, and formed a law firm with his younger brother, working primarily on family and estate cases.

Work on civil rights cases in the South in the early 1960s transformed his view of American society and the courts and he began representing ``the poor, the persecuted, the radicals and the militant, the black people, the pacifists and the political pariahs.″

``I spent over a year in Mississippi representing the Freedom Riders,″ he once recalled. ``That’s when I met Martin Luther King Jr., and became what he called his special trial counsel. I represented Martin for seven years, until he was murdered.″

As a lawyer, he was often accused of emphasizing theatrics over substance. He was criticized for his lack of attention to detail, to timely filings and motions. But he excelled in framing the terms of a case.

He opened his successful defense of Larry Davis, accused of trying to kill nine New York police officers in a shootout, by telling the jury the case was about ``how the police treat young Third World people in the depressed communities of our city.″

Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz, who represented Kuntsler on some of his Chicago Seven contempt appeals, said Kunstler ``was always going to change the world.

``I have great compassion for God now because I think Bill is going to start filing lawsuits as soon as he gets to heaven,″ he said.

Kunstler wrote more than a dozen books, including ``Our Pleasant Vices,″ a book of poems (1941), and more recently ``Judge Duffy’s Rule″ after a federal judge barred both sides in the World Trade Center bombing from talking to the media and ``My Life as a Radical Lawyer,″ his autobiography.

He played a vengeful judge in Spike Lee’s movie ``Malcolm X″ and played himself in Oliver Stone’s movie ``The Doors.″

Kunstler, who once represented Lenny Bruce, even tried stand up-comedy in a New York club last month.

Looking gaunt two days after having his pacemaker installed, he said he first dropped acid after meeting Jerry Garcia 26 years ago at Woodstock, and joked about whether the statute of limitations expired. But he saved his best line for after the show.

``Once you’re up there and once you get a feel that this audience likes you _ and I certainly felt that,″ he said backstage. ``I could feel the warmth ... You can’t always say that for a jury.″

He is survived by his wife, Margaret Ratner; two daughters, Sara and Emily, both of New York, and two daughters from his first marriage to Lotte Rosenberger; Karin Goldman of New York and Jane Drazek of Wichita, Kan., and a sister, Mary Horn of Baltimore.

A private funeral and a public memorial service are being planned, said his law partner, Ron Kuby.

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