William Kunstler (1919-1995) was one of the best known civil rights attorneys in the United States. His most famous trial was his defense of the Chicago Seven who were charged with conspiracy to commita riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
William Kunstler was one of the country's best known and most reviled radical lawyers, defending clients whom most attorneys shunned. He was revered by supporters and condemned by critics. His clients included civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., mafia don John Gotti, and a terrorist accused in the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City. Kunstler's most famous trial was the one in which seven people—the Chicago Seven, as they came to be known— were charged with conspiracy to commit a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.
Kunstler was born in New York City, the son of a proctologist, Monroe Bradford Kunstler, and Frances Mandelbaum Kunstler. Kunstler had one brother, Michael, and one sister, Mary. He was married twice and had four children from the two marriages. His first marriage to Lotte Rosenberger ended in divorce in the mid-1970s. They had two daughters, Karin and Jane. Kunstler blamed the breakup on his long periods away from home defending civil rights causes around the country. His second marriage was to Margaret Ratner; they also had two daughters, Sarah and Emily. Kunstler graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School Manhattan Annex in New York and later from Yale University. After serving in the army in World War II, during which he saw limited combat in the Philippines, Kunstler came home and enrolled in Columbia Law School, and graduated in 1948. After he passed the bar, Kunstler and his brother, Michael, opened a family law firm of Kunstler & Kunstler. In the early 1950s, Kunstler taught law at the New York Law School.
Kunstler's career changed dramatically in 1956 when he represented a black journalist, William Worthy Jr., who was arrested because he didn't have a passport when he returned from a trip to Cuba. Kunstler successfully argued that the law was archaic and unconstitutional and the case was dismissed in 1961. Kunstler said in his book, My Life as a Radical Attorney, that this was the case that launched his career as a civil rights attorney. In his summation before the U.S. Court of Appeals, Kunstler would create one of his trademarks: reciting poetry at the start of his summations. In that trial, Kunstler opened his closing argument with a line from Sir Walter Scott's The Lay of The Last Minstrel: "Breathes there the man with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said,/ this is my own, my native land." In addition to his unorthodox antics, Kunstler had a colorful appearance in court. His craggy face was accentuated by a raspy voice, unkept hair, and eyeglasses which were always perched on the top of his head. Critics called Kunstler a showboat and a publicity seeker. "To some extent that has a ring of truth," Kunstler said in an interview with David Margolick, special writer for the New York Times. "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. And that's never changed."
After the Worthy case, Kunstler ended up spending a lot of time in the southern United States, representing Freedom Riders arrested on breach of peace and disorderly conduct charges for staging civil rights protests in places like Birmingham, Alabama, and Biloxi, Mississippi. Kunstler even marched in some of the protests. "The sixties was my time of transformation. During this period and into the 1970s I changed from a liberal into a radical," Kunstler wrote in My Life as a Radical Attorney. "I metamorphosed. As the movement expanded from civil rights to Black Power, from protest to militant dissent, I took almost all political cases that came my way." And when politics dissolved altogether, Kunstler was left "with celebrity socio-paths or just plain celebrities. By the end, he wasn't at the action, he was the action," a New Yorker magazine writer commented after his death.
Many of Kunstler's clients, though, were African American, some charged with murdering police or other high profile crimes, which made Kunstler unpopular with some segments of society. "For more than 20 years, my representation of Black defendants has been motivated by one of my strongest beliefs: That our society is racist," Kunstler wrote in his autobiography. It was during the social protests in the South that Kunstler represented Martin Luther King, Jr. on civil rights issues. Then in the late 1960s he became involved with the trial of the Chicago Seven, as the defendants came to be known.
The suspects had come to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago to protest the war in Vietnam. The proceedings were interrupted repeatedly by confrontations between Kunstler and U.S. District Court Judge Julius Jennings Hoffman. Courtroom decorum suffered as the defendants, Kunstler, and other lawyers battled with Hoffman, who seemingly lost control of the proceedings on occasions. One defendant, Abbie Hoffman (no relation to Judge Hoffman) would do handstands on his way into court, or pole vault over a court railing. Another defendant, Bobby Seale, who was national chair of the Black Panthers, at one point during the trial was ordered by Judge Hoffman to be gagged, chained, and bound to the counsel table. Kunstler, in his book, My Life as a Radical Lawyer, wrote this about Judge Hoffman: "He reminded me [more] of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland with her cries, 'Off with their heads,' than a dignified judicial figure." All defendants were acquitted of the most serious charge of conspiracy to incite a riot. Five were convicted of lesser charges, but those were dismissed on appeal. While the jury was deliberating the fate of the Chicago Seven, Hoffman found Kunstler guilty of 24 counts of contempt of court, one for each time the judge thought Kunstler showed disrespect and rudeness during the five-month trial, and sentenced Kunstler to four years and 13 days in prison. The charges were reversed two years later by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which ordered a new trial for Kunstler. Kunstler was convicted of two counts of contempt, but was not sentenced to prison.
Following the Chicago Seven trial, Kunstler said he felt he would sink into oblivion. But he was soon back in the national news in 1971 when rioting broke out at Attica State Prison in New York. Thirty-nine prisoners were massacred during five days of rioting, which Kunstler said was precipitated by inhumane treatment. Kunstler was called in as an intermediary and later filed lawsuits on behalf of prisoners.
Kunstler had often been the target of abuse because of the clients he represented, but nothing compared to the threats and harassments he received for representing Islamic clients in 1993 and 1994. Kunstler, who was Jewish, was considered a traitor by some. One of his clients, El Sayyida A. Nossair, was charged with murdering Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the militant Jewish Defense League and Israel's anti-Arab Kach party. A jury in New York City found Nossair innocent of the murder charge. During the trial, pickets paraded in front of Kunstler's home in Greenwich Village in Manhattan and windows were broken. Threats were also made over the phone when he represented Nossair's cousin, Ibrahim A. Elgabrowny, in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Kunstler, who became enamored with poetry while at Yale University, had many of his poems published. One of his last works was one entitled "When The Cheering Stopped;" it dealt with the arrest of former football star O. J. Simpson on charges that he murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a friend, Ronald Goldman. "I was struck with the paradox of how quickly a sports idol can be caught up in a tragedy of immense proportions," Kunstler was quoted as saying in a Harpers ' magazine article. "Of one thing I am certain, this will not be my last sonnet about the matter." Kunstler died seven months later on September 4, 1995, in New York City, one month before Simpson was acquitted.
Months after Kunstler's death, supporters—as well as one vocal detractor—showed up at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City in his honor. Friends and clients, including poets Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg, civil rights leader Betty Shabazz, and Chicago Seven alumnus Bobby Seale, united with Kunstler's family members to share their memories of the flamboyant attorney. The New York Times quoted author Jimmy Breslin as saying, "Dying is no big deal; the least of us can manage that. The trick is how you live, and Mr. Bill Kunstler lived. He lived with a searing pace, a furious energy, and overwhelming love of right and dislike of wrong."
Further Reading on William M. Kunstler
Kunstler, William M., My Life As A Radical Lawyer, Carol Publishing Group, 1994.
Harper's, February 1995, p. 28.
Nation, March 25, 1991, p. 364.
New Yorker, September 18, 1995, p. 39.
New York Times, September 5, 1995, p. B6; September 18, 1995; July 5, 1993; November 20, 1995, p. B11.
USA Today, September 5, 1995, p. 3A.
Washington Post, September 5, 1995, p. B4.
Associated Press wire service, September 5, 1995.