Kunstler's name born of notorieties

October 16, 1994|By Judith Bolton-Fasman

Vanity Fair dubbed him "The Most Hated Lawyer in America." He may also be the most legendary lawyer in America. In a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals requesting William Kunstler as his counsel, Mohammed Saleh, one of the four men convicted of bombing the World Trade Center, wrote: "There is no need to say, 'Who is Mr. Kunstler?' He is as a mountain on the ground. I think all of the lawyers are kids compared to him."

Indeed, many lawyers in practice today were kids when Mr. Kunstler, then 50, became a star after his unforgettable performance as one of the defense attorneys for the Chicago Seven. In his new autobiography, he writes, "because the trial was covered so thoroughly in the media, the image of me as an aging radical with long gray hair askew and glasses perched on my head became familiar to many people. I like the recognition: actually I loved it. All the publicity I received began with this case, and I have been known since as the Chicago conspiracy lawyer, an image I have tried to use to benefit every client I represent."

That was 1969. Ever since, Mr. Kunstler has toed his ideological line from the streets of Chicago to the rubble of the World Trade Center. Along the way, notable points have included Catonsville, Attica and Wounded Knee. Mr. Kunstler's roster of clients reads like a "Who's Who" of social innovators and self-styled revolutionaries. He shot heroin once with Lenny Bruce. He was a special trial counsel to Martin Luther King Jr. Lee Harvey Oswald was almost a client; Mr. Kunstler was on his way to Dallas to represent him when he was shot. He later defended Oswald's assassin, Jack Ruby, on appeal. Mr. Kunstler was also counsel to a number of Black Panthers, and Abbie Hoffman, one of the Chicago Seven, was a close friend.

Before his fame, there was Kunstler & Kunstler, a small, suburban New York law firm that he and younger brother Michael founded. The Kunstler brothers specialized in trusts and estates. (In 1950, fellow Columbia Law School graduate Roy Cohn asked Mr. Kunstler to draw up a will for his friend Sen. Joseph McCarthy.)

In 1961, Mr. Kunstler found his calling when an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer asked him to go to Jackson, Miss., and represent activists who called themselves Freedom Riders. It was the Chicago trial, however, that "radicalized" him. At various points in the book he describes Chicago as "my rubicon, my rebirth." He calls the trial itself "a sixties morality play" in which one defendant was bound and gagged, another cursed the judge in Yiddish and the prosecutor called his opponents homosexuals.

Now, at 75, Mr. Kunstler remains the committed radical; only his clientele has changed. In the 1960s and '70s, he represented such famous radicals as Mr. Hoffman, the Berrigan brothers and Tom Hayden. In the 1980s and '90s, he became an attorney to social outcasts. In recent years, Mr. Kunstler's clients have included El Sayyid Nossair, Rabbi Meir Kahane's accused assassin; mob boss and convicted killer John Gotti; and Yusef Salaam, one of the youths accused of raping and assaulting the Central Park jogger.

Mr. Kunstler is now representing Colin Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant who is accused of killing six people and wounding 16 others on the Long Island Railroad. He is planning a controversial insanity defense that will contend that "black rage" triggered Mr. Ferguson's shooting spree. He had also expected to defend three of the 13 men who were charged with plotting to blow up the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and other New York landmarks. However, citing a conflict of interest, a federal judge recently removed him from the case. Two of his former clients are defendants whom Mr. Kunstler would have had to cross-examine as witnesses.

Reading "My Life as a Radical Lawyer" is like experiencing a time warp. Mr. Kunstler, still stuck in the '60s, is desperately trying to graft those values onto the reality of the '90s. Although his career has had a revival of sorts, one cannot help but feel that he ran out of meaningful cases a long time ago. But there is another side to this autobiography, in which Mr. Kunstler comes across as an erudite gentleman and a devoted family man. (A collection of his sonnets titled "Hints and Allegations" will be published later this month.)

"My Life as a Radical Lawyer" is also spiced with plenty of gossip. He calls attorney Alan Dershowitz reprehensible for representing Leona Helmsley. He describes the Kennedy brothers as "dangerous and deceptive" men and suggests that their deaths may have ultimately benefited the country. And he calls Robert Shapiro, who is representing O. J. Simpson and who replaced Mr. Kunstler as Christian Brando's counsel, a "wheeler-dealer . . . not really a trial lawyer."

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