Kunstler's Law He's 75, but the fires of justice still burn, says radical attorney

NEW YORK — New York -- William M. Kunstler, defender of the needy, the radical, the infamous, stands outside his Greenwich Village house at 10:30 a.m. giving a TV interview about the recent settlement of charges against Malcolm X's daughter, Qubilah Shabazz. "It came about because the federal government had virtually no case!" the attorney chortles.

"That and, of course, a vigorous defense."


Fifteen minutes later, in the office beneath his house, Mr. Kunstler gives a newspaper interview about the Oklahoma City bombing: "I don't give a damn whether Timothy McVeigh gets a fair trial! Does he deserve one? Of course he does, but I'm not going to defend him.

"I don't take extreme right-wingers."


At lunch, between bites of blueberry blinis, he fields more questions about the Shabazz case.

At 1:25 p.m., Mr. Kunstler, hurrying back to his office for another interview -- this time about the recently released movie "Panther"-- is congratulated on a street corner by a stranger. A fan, really.

How many lawyers have fans?

"Happens all the time," Mr. Kunstler says, barely slowing.

Thirty years have passed since a young corporate attorney left Manhattan and went south to help defend the Freedom Riders -- never to return fully to his old life.

Mr. Kunstler defended the Berrigan brothers and H. Rap Brown, and was special counsel to Martin Luther King Jr. Now 75, he will be in Owings Mills tomorrow to discuss one of his favorite topics: himself.

The author of 13 books, including collections of poetry, will be at the Peggy & Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts to discuss "My Life as a Radical Lawyer," co-authored with Sheila Isenberg and published last year. (His next book, he says, will be a $H collection of poems about the O. J. Simpson trial titled "The Simpson Sonnets.")

Though Mr. Kunstler's rambling, exuberant autobiography is unlikely to be required reading in first-year law classes, perhaps it should be. A run-through of his clients reads like a bizarre blend of who's who in civil rights history and America's Most Notorious List: the Chicago Seven, Jack Ruby, Bobby Seale, Marion Barry, El Sayyid Nosair (acquitted of the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane, but convicted on a related weapons charge), Yusef Salaam (convicted of raping the Central Park jogger) and Colin Ferguson (convicted of killing six people on the Long Island Rail Road).


However, this also is an autobiography that comes with a disclaimer. "I have checked key episodes with other sources, finally selecting from the sometimes mutable versions of his storytelling the account that strays least from the truth," Ms. Isenberg writes in her prologue.

Gray hair perpetually flyaway, long face lined with wrinkles carved deep by time, voice gravelly from a hectic life and thousands of hours in court, Mr. Kunstler is one of the rare lawyers whose name is known not only to judges and prosecutors but also to the public.

Even if the public more often than not reviles his clients.

He takes these controversial cases because the defendants are poor, powerless or are not receiving fair treatment under the law, Mr. Kunstler says.

"He's one of the few lawyers who really buys what the canon of ethics says: that all should receive fair trial," says Dennis Roberts, a California attorney who worked with Mr. Kunstler in the 1970s. "I have taken great umbrage at some of the cases he has selected, but I have always admired his courage."

However, some attorneys criticize Mr. Kunstler for what they say is a fly-by-night style and for selecting cases based on their potential for publicity.


"I am not at all impressed with him as a lawyer," says Thomas Foran, who was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois who prosecuted the Chicago Seven in 1969.

"I thought he was totally irresponsible, poorly prepared and more interested in fulfilling his own political agenda than representing his clients."

Mr. Kunstler counters that he and his partner, Ron Kuby, follow their consciences, not the limelight. Often working for free, they subsidize this work by taking on paid clients and giving lectures, he says.

And he shrugs off the negative publicity, though he admits he thrives on the positive.

His curriculum vitae, after all, includes a section with the heading: "Motion Pictures." Mr. Kunstler has played himself in TV shows and has had roles in films such as Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" and Oliver Stone's "The Doors."

The attorney says his unwaning enthusiasm for taking on unpopular clients is fueled by a deep mistrust of the government.


"I think all government is corrupt, some more than others," says ++ Mr. Kunstler, his voice deepening to a low thunder as he warms to his topic. "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.

L "That's pretty loose," he admits. "But that's how we do it."

A glimpse into the office of Kunstler and Kuby offers irrefutable proof that, agree with them or not, these are not your typical attorneys.

The front door opens onto a forest of file cabinets and one desk, shared by two frantic secretaries. A large, black sleeping dog named Liberty makes the cramped hallway nearly impassable. Almost every inch of the walls is covered by mementos from glory days, both long past and barely past.

There are photos of American Indians at Wounded Knee, Marlon Brando, Spike Lee, Malcolm X. There are proclamations of appreciation from the International Peace for Cuba Appeal, a battered women's shelter, Oliver Stone. There is a Sacco-Venzetti Memorial Award and a 1970 "maverick award" from the Trade Union Women of African Heritage for serving "mankind in the face of Opposition."

There's even a citation from the American Civil Liberties Union's animal protection committee.


In the next room, stacks of files -- some labeled with case names, one labeled "sonnets" -- lean precariously on shelves and table tops. Facing the heavy wooden desk belonging to Mr. Kunstler, a worn velvet sofa is so sunken that anyone attempting to sit there is thrown nearly prone.

A teddy bear dressed in an I.R.A. T-shirt shares the mantel with photos of Mr. Kunstler's second wife, civil rights attorney Margaret L. Ratner, and his four daughters. Above it all, Michelangelo's David, cast in pristine white plaster, gazes into some invisible beyond.

But the air crackles with energy: Law here is still fun. Mr. Kuby, big-boned and ponytaileded, pumps his fist in the decades-old power sign before leaving for court. As he leaves, a secretary yells, "Give 'em hell!"

And when Mr. Kuby returns to announce that not only did he win, but that he may get paid, everyone cheers.

Mr. Kunstler "places great store on friendship and on justice. He's a great defender of the downtrodden and the loser," says Philip Berrigan, who as one of the Catonsville Nine was defended in 1969 by Mr. Kunstler for no payment.

"He is one of the most famous criminal lawyers in the country today, and still he works hard for those who are very often victimized."


But even Wild Bill admits that in the 30 years since the days of the Freedom Riders, the times have changed, and so have the crimes.

Some of his recent cases, such as the defense of those charged with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, have prompted picketing and death threats to be made against the lawyer. (In the end, Mr. Kunstler was removed from that case by a judge citing conflict of interest.)

The attorney says: "It gets tougher [to defend certain clients] when you get away from crimes like breach of peace. Now there are tougher cases, the stakes are higher, and the crimes are more horrific."

And there are defendants that even he turns from.

Timothy McVeigh, charged with the Oklahoma City bombing, is one. He will not -- cannot -- defend a right-wing terrorist, he says. "Many people sympathize with the right-wing agenda. They abhor the bombing, but underneath they share the right-wing ideas . . . that's why it's so dangerous."

Still, he remains determined. "It's a long fight, a perennial, endless fight. If you get dismayed, you don't do this fight," the attorney says. And as he begins to warm to this subject, the phone rings.


It's 3:45 p.m., and a reporter is calling from Chicago. Mr. Kunstler leans back in his chair with an air of satisfaction and playfully wiggles his bushy, gray eyebrows up and down. "William Kunstler?" he says. "You've got him. You've got the very man.

"You're at the fount."