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William Kunstler, Raspy Voice of the Underdog, Dead at 76

September 5, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ With his wild hair, raspy voice and reading glasses perpetually perched on his balding forehead, William Kunstler looked every bit the part of radical lawyer.

For three decades, he was a rumpled presence in court who committed himself to the outcasts and underdogs, ``the poor, the persecuted, the radicals and the militant, the black people, the pacifists and the political pariahs.″

Kunstler died of a heart attack Monday after a brief hospitalization. He was 76.

At times, he became as unpopular as the causes he defended, once dubbed the ``the most hated lawyer in America″ by Vanity Fair magazine and decried by his critics 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.″

His client list read like a Who’s Who of modern American history and jurisprudence: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Chicago Seven, Jack Ruby, John Gotti, Indian activist Leonard Peltier, flag burner Gregory Johnson, Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, Black Panthers and defendants in the Attica prison riot.

Considered Kunstler’s greatest accomplishment was his successful argument that under an 1866 law protecting ex-slaves, civil rights cases should be removed from state courts and placed in federal courts.

But he was best known for defending 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. The judge, however, found all seven defendants, Kunstler and his co-counsel guilty of contempt on 160 counts.

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

Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz, who represented Kunstler 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,″ Dershowitz said. ``He was a great lawyer. If he hadn’t existed, we would have had to create him.″

Tom Hayden, a Chicago Seven defendant and now a state senator in California, recalled, ``Bill would always argue the test of a good lawyer is whether he’s willing to defend the most unpopular people in America, because if no one does then sooner or later you’ll be on the list yourself and have no legal defense.″

``He was a rebel,″ said attorney F. Lee Bailey. ``He was a fella who would take the cases no one else would.″

Kunstler 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 rejected Kunstler’s insanity defense that ``black rage″ drove him to shoot and kill six passengers on a New York commuter train in 1993. Ferguson claimed he was innocent, represented himself and was convicted.

Admirers saw Kunstler as a smart, courageous litigator, and he had some remarkable successes. He helped clear Egyptian immigrant El Sayyid Nosair in the assassination of militant Rabbi Meir Kahane, despite eyewitnesses who testified he had shot him. Nosair was convicted only on a weapons 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. More than 30 years earlier, he had represented Shabazz’ father.

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.

He majored in French at Yale, served as a signal intelligence officer in the Pacific in World War II, where he received a Bronze Star, then went to Columbia Law School, graduating in 1949.

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. It was then that he became an advocate for outcasts and 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 wounding six 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.″

Kunstler wrote more than a dozen books, including ``Our Pleasant Vices,″ a book of poems (1941), ``Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?: The Original Trial of Caryl Chessman,″ a 1961 account of a California convict executed after more than a decade on death row, ``The Case for Courage: The Stories of Ten Famous American Attorneys Who Risked Their Careers in the Cause of Justice,″ (1962). His autobiography, ``My Life as a Radical Lawyer,″ was published last year.

Looking gaunt last month, two days after having a pacemaker installed, Kunstler _ who once represented Lenny Bruce _ even tried stand up-comedy in a New York club.

``I could feel the warmth,″ he said afterwards. ``You can’t always say that for a jury.″

He is survived by his wife, Margaret Ratner; daughters, Sarah 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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