by John Mage
Leonard Weinglass, a leading leftwing lawyer in the United States with an international perspective, died in the early evening on March 23, 2011. Len, who died on his 78th birthday, fell ill in late January while in Cuba. In the first days of February exploratory surgery at Montefiore Hospital discovered that he had inoperable cancer of the pancreas.
Lenny, a 1958 graduate of Yale Law School, became active in the U.S. left lawyers' organization, the National Lawyers Guild, in the course of the civil rights movements of the 1960s. He rose to fame as co-counsel with Bill Kunstler in the Chicago Seven (originally Chicago Eight) conspiracy trial of 1969-70. The seven defendants -- Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner -- were charged with conspiracy, inciting to riot, and other charges arising from the mass protests in Chicago, Illinois at the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The eighth defendant, Bobby Seale, had repeatedly insisted on the trial being delayed to permit his lawyer, Charles Garry, then recovering from surgery, to be present. The Judge, the irascible Julius Hoffman, former law partner of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, had Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom when he would not cease his protests. Seale was later severed from the case, but the proceedings -- which lasted from April 1969 to February 1970 -- never recovered any semblance of justice or dignity. Judge Hoffman made no effort to disguise his open bias for the prosecution, and took a particular delight in abusing Len, whose name he claimed not to be able to remember, calling him Weinstein, Steinglass, Glassberg, etc. At the close of the trial Len was, along with Bill Kunstler, held in contempt by Judge Hoffman. He always regarded this as an honor.
In the intervening years, Len represented a continuous sequence of defendants in political prosecutions in the courts of the United States. A partial list, current to 1995, is available here.
I have been co-counsel with Lenny, most recently in 2003 in Article 78 proceedings in New York State Supreme Court, Albany County, that set aside a denial of parole to Kathy Boudin and sent the matter back to the Parole Board for a rehearing. At the subsequent hearing Kathy was paroled. Lenny was a meticulous, well-prepared litigator, and with an extraordinary degree of practical wisdom and foresight. He had been counsel for Kathy in the 1983 proceedings that resulted in her plea and sentence to twenty years to life, for a politically motivated offense. In the 2003 proceedings we had the extraordinary experience of relying with decisive effect on the words that Lenny, twenty years before, had fought relentlessly to have inserted into the sentencing record.
In his final struggle, Lenny was counsel for Antonio Guerrero, one of the Cuban 5, who had infiltrated anti-Castro terrorist organizations in Florida. Tried in a lynch law atmosphere in the Cuban exile stronghold of Miami, their convictions were guaranteed. In a magnificent piece of legal work, Lenny -- in practice acting as lead counsel for the Cuban 5 -- was able to convince a distinguished panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that they had not received a fair trial in Miami, and indeed could not have received a fair trial there. In the "war on terror" atmosphere of the Bush administration, which continues to this day, this was an outstanding achievement. Not surprisingly, the Justice Department was able to get the full bench of the 11th Circuit to reverse the panel. But in the eyes of all but the indoctrinated, the panel's analysis has permanently tainted the convictions of the Cuban 5. It is decisive that the U.S. authorities were unable to get even their own judges to uphold the convictions in the normal course. Lenny continued, to his last breath, to fight to bring the injustice done to the Cuban 5 to the attention of the decent people of the world.
Len was a defense attorney. He represented clients who did not choose to be in court, and who faced the near certainty of conviction in political cases in hopelessly biased courts. Yet, without disguising the political nature of the cases nor denying the reality of the bias, he worked diligently to pursue every possibility for successful defense. As appellate counsel, none I ever worked with surpassed his ability to master every relevant detail of the record below, however long and intricate. Lenny never pursued the monetary rewards his skills would easily have made available, were he but to have put politics aside. His politics were constitutive of his person, and present in every waking moment. His modest office/living loft, his cabin in the Catskills, were sufficient for his needs. To the end he cheerfully, and as effectively as was possible, served those who resisted the all-pervasive injustice of these United States.
John Mage is Director of the Monthly Review Foundation.