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'Chicago 7' Attorney William Kunstler Still Champion of the Political Underdog

April 05, 1987|JERRY SCHWARTZ | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Attorney William Kunstler, who has defended political radicals, reputed mob bosses, accused spies, alleged arms smugglers and even actresses, has one major consideration when he is asked to represent someone.

And it isn't the prospect of winning.

"You're playing not with an eye on some scorecard for lawyers," he said recently. "You're playing with an eye on history."

That keen eye for what will attract attention was evident earlier this month, when a judge in Boston refused to appoint the 67-year-old Kunstler to represent eight radicals charged with trying to overthrow the U.S. government through several bombings and bank robberies.

In a scene reminiscent of Chicago in 1969, Kunstler shouted at the judge: "Why don't you reconsider before it's too late?"

Federal marshals grabbed him and another lawyer. "Take your hands off me!" Kunstler shouted as they were escorted from the courtroom.

'Have Writ, Will Travel'

In an interview, Kunstler said that episode illustrated government efforts to "break up the itinerant lawyer . . . to attack lawyers who are taking the cases of anybody who is really disliked by the government. They're going after the 'have writ, will travel' types."

For more than 25 years, Kunstler has epitomized that type, and in recent years he has championed a dizzying variety of defendants:

Convicted Atlanta child-murderer Wayne Williams; actress Joey Heatherton, charged with attacking a passport clerk; Indian activists Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier; Darryl Cabey, one of the four youths Bernhard Goetz shot in a New York subway; reputed Mafia boss Joseph Bonanno; survivors of the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana; Puerto Rican separatists charged with a $7-million robbery.

Kunstler is representing Marine Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, charged with spying for the Soviet Union. He is a lawyer for Nico Minardos, accused with 13 others of plotting to smuggle U.S. weapons to Iran.

He says he's accepted some clients who he thinks are getting a raw deal "even though I don't share much politics with them," but for the most part, he likes to represent "a cross-section of whatever the Movement is in this country."

Argued Right to Travel

In his first major civil liberties case, Kunstler defended a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American who was refused a passport renewal because he had visited the then-forbidden land of China.

Although he lost that case, he said it gave him "a taste for a certain kind of law where you are dealing with national issues, constitutions and the rights of individuals."

Kunstler did not start out as a radical lawyer. The son of a doctor, he grew up in New York and studied French at Yale before entering Columbia University School of Law. He passed the bar in 1948.

Most of his early work was in marriage, estate and business law, with occasional cases for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Then, in 1961, the ACLU asked him to go to Mississippi to assist local lawyers representing the Congress of Racial Equality's "freedom riders." He went reluctantly, but was electrified by the experience.

"I became a different kind of lawyer--totally," Kunstler said.

In ensuing years, he won a court ruling of de facto segregation in the District of Columbia schools, defended Stokely Carmichael in Selma, Ala., appealed the convictions of blacks who challenged segregated seating on buses in Birmingham, Ala., and was special counsel to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Won Federal Jurisdiction

One of his greatest accomplishments was Kunstler's success in arguing that, under an 1866 law protecting ex-slaves, civil rights cases should be removed from state courts and placed in federal courts.

But to many, he is linked forever with the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial, featuring the theatrics of Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, Judge Julius Hoffman and the ever-colorful Kunstler.

The judge wound up citing him for contempt of court, but he was a star.

Unlike other leftist lawyers, Kunstler takes some cases that pay well. He says he cannot live on the proceeds from his lectures and writings alone (he has just published his 11th book, a volume of poetry titled "Trials and Tribulations") and must earn some money from his cases.

He once said he was "not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love." That's not true anymore. He said he defends alleged mobsters because he feels they are victims of government persecution, and he does not accept a fee.

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