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William Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America

By David J. Langum

William Kunstler is a well-researched, even-handed account of the life of the highly controversial lawyer.

452 pages
New York University Press (1999)

Reviewed by: Eric Howard
Reading about radical defense attorney William Kunstler, it is not surprising to find many examples of grandstanding and controversy. What is surprising, given the grim facts underlying most of Kunstler's famous cases and the imperfections of his personal life, is the humor. The Alice-in-Wonderland absurdity of the trial of the Chicago Eight (later Seven), to cite the prime example, afforded Kunstler the opportunity for fun as well as legal representation.

One excerpt from the trial record refers to one of the many cards, letters, and packages delivered directly to the defendants during the trial:

"Your honor, there was delivered to us, courtesy of your courtroom deputy, a supply of cannabis, a controlled substance under the federal code. I would like your instructions on what to do about it."

"Mr. Kunstler, you are a resolute attorney. I'm sure you'll know how to dispose of it."

"Your Honor, it will be burned tonight."

Shortly after the trial in Chicago, however, Kunstler was called to talk to the prisoners at Attica after the uprising. The book's account of the bloodbath and war of words that followed is absolutely wrenchin

Kunstler (who had abandoned a more conventional law practice early in his career) went on to represent such controversial defendants as Russell Means and Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement and El Sayyid Nosair, who was accused of killing the radical rabbi Meir Kahane. Other cases attracted less attention, but still bore the stamp of Kunstler's love of making things difficult for the establishment. He defended a Hell's Angels club accused of murder and weapons violations: "One club member promised Kunstler he would put a tattoo of Lenin on his left shoulder to match Hitler's on his right." Kunstler also represented John Gotti and other mobsters, once saying, "this country has a long tradition of bias against Italian Americans, and we love making villains out of individuals who are linked to organized crime." Langum notes that Kunslter felt a kind of naive glee at being feted by his mafia clients.

Ultimately, Kunstler was able to look back upon his life with pleasure. In an interview in 1988 he said: "I feel that I on the personal level have had a good and fruitful life. I've done what I wanted to do." He could not only find approval in his own conscience but also in the eyes of others. Once, for example, he was approached by a stranger on the streets of New York, who breathlessly asked if he was William Kunstler. When told that he was, the stranger expressed great admiration for his work, specifically his 1954 book, Corporate Tax Summary. For once, Langum reports, Kunstler did not know what to say.

Eric Howard is associate editor of Los Angeles Lawyer.