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The King of Controversy : Once, William Kunstler epitomized movement lawyers: fighting for civil rights, against Vietnam. He hasn't changed much since then. But his clients have.

September 02, 1994|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — As he drove down a darkened highway into Manhattan one night, William M. Kunstler clicked on the radio and learned that he was dead.

"The body of famed radical attorney William Kunstler was found in his home this afternoon, an apparent suicide," the announcer said. "We'll be gathering reaction from the political world as this story develops."

Intrigued, Kunstler turned up the volume and heard more details of his life and untimely death. The report was only corrected hours later, with the news that one of his nephews with the same name had killed himself instead.

"I guess they were guilty of wishful thinking," Kunstler cracks, recalling the bizarre 1976 broadcast. "Some folks don't hide it very well."

It wasn't the first or last time that America's most prominent left-wing lawyer has been written off for dead. For years, his bushy sideburns and abrasive politics have seemed as dated as the 1960s themselves, his flamboyant courtroom style a throwback to earlier, more innocent times.

Once, Kunstler was the king of movement lawyers. Brash, self-serving and often brilliant, he epitomized a generation of white, middle-class attorneys who raised hell over civil rights, police brutality and the Vietnam War. Best known for his role in the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial of 1969, Kunstler joined with such lawyers as Charles Garry, Gerald Lefcourt, Leonard Weinglass and Ramsey Clark in a saber-rattling crusade against Fortress Amerika.

Now 75, Kunstler hasn't changed much. But his clients have. He used to represent people like Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden--radicals with national followings--yet lately he's become the pariah's attorney of choice. A man who turns terrorists, rapists and murderers into political causes celebres.

It's brought him new life in the '90s, as well as scathing criticism. Indeed, Vanity Fair dubbed him "The Most Hated Lawyer in America," and there's no shortage of pundits who call him a hypocrite. But Kunstler couldn't care less.

"My agenda is the same as 25 years ago," he insists. "It's just that these are rougher times and the folks I deal with now aren't the same."

In recent years, Kunstler has handled clients ranging from El Sayyid Nosair--the man accused of murdering Rabbi Meir Kahane--to Larry Davis, a black man charged with killing four men and wounding six New York cops. He defended Yusef Salaam, one of several youths who participated in the rape and attack on the Central Park jogger, and he represented mob killer John Gotti.

This fall, he'll defend Colin Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant who killed six people and wounded 19 in a wild shooting spree on the Long Island Railroad. Kunstler plans an insanity defense and has sparked a national controversy by suggesting that "black rage" triggered Ferguson's attack.

"Ever since the Chicago trial, I realized that America's criminal justice system is bankrupt," says Kunstler, his trademark bifocals perched on a mane of unruly hair. "My focus is on people who can least defend themselves. On African Americans, on followers of Islam, who are on the margins of society. These folks have a constitutional right to a lawyer like anyone else."

Until recently, he represented three of 13 men charged with plotting to blow up the United Nations and other New York City landmarks. Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman--the alleged ringleader--has sought his services, as have three of the four Muslims convicted earlier this year of bombing the World Trade Center.

The New York conspiracy trial might have given him his biggest platform yet. But U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey removed Kunstler's law firm from the case last week, citing a conflict of interest. Two defendants he once represented in the matter now have different attorneys, Mukasey ruled, and it would be ethically difficult for the lawyer to cross-examine them as witnesses.

Kunstler, who expected the decision, blasted Mukasey for caving in to government pressure, adding: "The state has wanted to kick our asses off this case so bad, they could taste it. They just can't keep up with me."

He's come a long way from his days as a quiet suburban attorney, and Kunstler celebrates the odyssey in "My Life as a Radical Lawyer" (Birch Lane Press), a provocative new autobiography. As he sees it, there's an ideological line running from the streets of Chicago in 1969 to the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

The argument baffles many friends, who view Kunstler's evolution with dismay. Yet they seem just as concerned for the future of progressive politics. What happened to him, in a sense, reflects the lack of direction on the American left.

"He's a mirror of the times, because the '60s was an era of hope and change," says Lynn Stewart, an attorney who's worked with Kunstler. "As that disappears you get involved with things that aren't as pure. You make excuses and see political righteousness in cases where it's not quite so clear."

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