Other defense attorneys may have been more famous — William Kunstler, for example — but radical leftists of a certain age remember the late Leonard Weinglass with special feeling. On the back cover of Seth Tobocman’s graphic biography Len, A Lawyer in History, the publisher’s description says (and I believe every word of it): “In a field dominated by egomaniacs, Weinglass was known for his humility, his common touch, his ability to work collectively, his kindness, and his attention to detail.”
Not least, he was also known for his legal brilliance. Tom Hayden has described him as “learned, funny, and the best damned trial lawyer I ever saw in a courtroom.” It was Weinglass who persuaded an appellate court to overturn the convictions of the Chicago Seven. It was Weinglass who was brought in by Daniel Ellsberg’s defense team in the Pentagon Papers trial to be chief counsel for Ellsberg’s co-defendant Anthony Russo, and Weinglass who was instrumental in getting the charges against both of them — espionage, theft, and conspiracy — thrown out.
It was Weinglass yet again who put the CIA on trial when University of Massachusett students were charged with trespass and disorderly conduct in a mass protest against CIA recruitment on the Amherst campus. Using a “necessity defense,” a strategy he devised with Abbie Hoffman, Weinglass exploited a Massachusetts law that made it legal to commit a crime to prevent a greater crime. He showed at trial that the protesters had broken the law only to prevent the CIA’s greater crimes of murder, kidnapping, and torture. Weinglass put former CIA operatives and government officials on the witness stand and elicited sworn testimony about rogue CIA operations in Nicaragua and elsewhere that were not just violations of human rights. He demonstrated that, because they’d been kept secret from the Congress in violation of the Boland Amendment, they were illegal. The jurors — all blue-collar conservatives, a majority of whom had voted for Ronald Reagan, found the protesters innocent. (Within days, coincidentally, the “Iran-Contra” scandal became news, revealing that Reagan’s minions led by Oliver North had secretly armed rightwing Nicaraguan death squads.)Weinglass, who died in 2011, took plenty of cases that other criminal defense attorneys wouldn’t take. He once described “the typical call” that came to him: “You’re the fifth attorney we’ve called.” Many of those calls came from defendants most people have never heard of — the black activist author Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been incarcerated for the past 30 years, much of that time on Pennsylvania’s Death Row; the Puerto Rican independence militant Juan E. Segarra Palmer; Antonio Guererro of the Cuban Five; the American Indian Movement organizers Paul Skyhorse and Richard Mohawk, as well as another Native American, Jimi Simmons.
Five years in the making, Len, A Lawyer in History, is a great educational tool because it dramatizes as well as narrates a complex story by streamlining the complications without sacrificing the details. Michael Steven Smith, who co-edited the book with Paul Buhle, writes in the introduction: “Len was not a sixties radical. He was something more unusual: he was a fifties radical. He developed his values, his critical thinking and world view in a time when non-conforming was rare.” Smith points out that Weinglass classified himself as “a radical American” who believed capitalism and democracy had become incompatible and that socialism “if given the chance” could remake society in a workable and democratic way:
He saw his legal work as his contribution to the collective work of the movement. He didn’t care a bit about making a fee. “I want to spend my time defending people who have committed their time to progressive change. That’s the criteria. Now, that could be people in armed struggle, people in protest politics, people in confrontational politics, people in mass organizations, people in labor.” Defending against “the machinery of the state,” as he put it, was his calling.
Have a look at these spreads. They give a sense of the book’s graphic style. (Mouse over the images to read some of the narrative text in a pop-up caption. Click the images and/or the captions to enlarge the spreads.)
Len’s friend and law colleague Michael Krinsky considered him “a modern Clarence Darrow.”
“He wasn’t drawn to making money. He was drawn to defending justice.” — Daniel Ellsberg”
Because the Ellsberg case was thrown out of court
there was no decision as to whether it was legal for Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers.
“He felt in many cases he was representing one person standing against the state.” — Daniel Ellsberg
“This was his favorite case. But very little has been written about it.” — Seth Tobocman
When is it possible for an act which is in violation of the law to be justified by necessity? There are three criteria. First, was there a clear and imminent threat? People were dying on November 24th, 1986 as a result of the crimes of the CIA. Second, was the action one that could abate the harm? As Ellsberg has testified, protest is the way the public corrects a wrong throughout our history. Finally, was there a legal alternative? Witnesses have testified that Congress would not restrain the CIA! I think you will find these students’ actions to be justified by necessity, and by so doing you will be joining them in making this a better country and our future more secure. — Leonard Weinglass to the jury