William Kunstler; Controversial Lawyer

By Ap | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 5, 1995 | Go to article overview

William Kunstler; Controversial Lawyer


Ap, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


William Kunstler, the raspy-voiced lawyer who spoke out for the politically unpopular in a controversial career defending clients including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Chicago Seven, Leonard Peltier, Colin Ferguson and others, died Monday (Sept. 4, 1995). He was 76.

Mr. Kunstler died at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital following a heart attack. He had a pacemaker installed on Aug. 7. He had been hospitalized since Aug. 28.

Mr. Kunstler saw himself as a legal paladin, a defender of those most lawyers avoided, an advocate for outcasts and pariahs. Critics often depicted him as a showboat and publicity seeker.

"To some extent that has the ring of truth," he once said. "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."

He had some remarkable successes. He helped clear Egyptian immigrant El Sayyid Nosair of charges that he assassinated militant Rabbi Meir Kahane.

The highlight of his career came when he defended the Chicago Seven against charges of conspiring to incite riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Courtroom decorum went out the window as the defendants and their attorneys battled with Judge Julius J. Hoffman.

"In a political trial such as this one, the court becomes not just a place to grind out a decision but also a place to educate the public and dramatize the contradictions between what the law preaches and what it practices," Mr. Kunstler said at the time.

The jury acquitted the seven defendants of conspiracy and found five guilty of incitement.

Mr. Kunstler himself would be sentenced by the judge to four years and 13 days in jail for contempt. But 168 of the 181 counts were dismissed on appeal, and he did not serve any time.

He did go to jail on occasion, but never longer than overnight. And publicity was usually the reason. He was always quick to advise the press of his court appearances, to issue press releases about his cases. …

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