William Kunstler's Footsteps

September 08, 1995

"I only represent those people in the clutches of powerful government, who are activists from the left or center or those who are being persecuted . . . I choose very politically," William Kunstler said in an interview with The Sun last spring.

He put it another way once, saying, "I'm not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love." Statements like that, plus his flamboyance, his gift for choosing high profile clients and his keen sense of p.r. made him probably "the most controversial lawyer since Clarence Darrow," as one observer of the legal scene put it.

It also made him many enemies. His statement about "those I love" drew a denunciation by the American Bar Association. Its journal said being for hire was "a badge of honor for attorneys," and compared Mr. Kunstler's supporters to the "teen-age" followers of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Some, yes, but hardly all. Many mature and thoughtful persons held Mr. Kunstler in high regard. For example, Philip Berrigan of "the Catonsville Nine" anti-Vietnam War protesters, said, "He's a great defender of the downtrodden and the loser."

The trial of the Catonsville Nine was but one of many appearances by Mr. Kunstler on the Maryland stage. He represented H. Rap Brown (now known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) after the Cambridge rioting. He represented state Sens. Clarence Mitchell III and Michael Mitchell, whom he contended were sent to prison while awaiting appeal of a verdict because they were black. The case that shook him loose from his traditional New York law practice and set him on the path to his controversial reputation was his representation of William Worthy the Baltimore Afro-American, who was denied the right to travel to Communist nations.

Soon thereafter Mr. Kunstler began devoting full time to representing freedom riders in the South, anti-war demonstrators Chicago and Catonsville, the prisoners at Attica and comedian Lenny Bruce. If this sounds like a 1960s-1970s career, it was -- but it continued. Until a heart ailment laid him low last month and killed him this week, Mr. Kunstler continued representing unpopular targets of government prosecutors.

He argued the case against the flag burning law before the Supreme Court in the late 1980s. In this decade he was the lawyer for Qubilah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, and John Gotti and, briefly, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Clients such as those will miss Mr. Kunstler. But he inspired many good lawyers to follow in his footsteps.

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