Leonard Irving Weinglass (1933-2011)


'Death is not real when one's life work is done well. Even in death, certain men radiate the light of an aurora.' –Jose Marti

Len was not a 1960s radical. He was something more unusual. He was a 1950s radical. He developed his values, his critical thinking and world view in a time when non-conforming was rare. He told a newspaper interviewer in Santa Barbara in 1980 that 'I would classify myself as a radical American. I am anti-capitalist in this sense – I don't believe capitalism is now compatible with democracy.' Socialism he thought could be, if given a chance, that socialism was still a young phenomenon on the world scene, that another world, a non- capitalist world, was possible. 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 people against 'the machinery of the state' as he put it, was his calling. He felt that one may have a fulfilled and satisfying life if one 'aligns with the major thrust of forces in the time in which you live.'

The third of four children, he grew up in a Jewish community of 200 families in Bellville, N.J. and attended high school in nearby Kearney, where he was a star end on the football team and Vice-President of his high school class. He went on to George Washington University down in D.C. for college on a scholarship. Len was an outstanding student and was accepted in 1955 into Yale Law School. There was a story that he liked to tell about his college job. He worked running an elevator at the Senate Office building. Lyndon Johnson was cold and rude to Len when riding in his elevator car. The one Senator who was friendly and who chatted with Len and always inquired as to how he was doing was…..Richard Nixon, whom Len was later to confound by winning a dismissal for Daniel Ellsberg and Tony Russo in the historic Viet Nam era Pentagon Papers case.

Len went from Yale in 1958 directly into the Air Force. In those days because of the draft there was no choice. One had to go into the military. Len was a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General's Corp and rose from a second lieutenant to the rank of captain. The Air Force had charged a black airman with some sort of crime. Len was assigned the case and got him acquitted. This infuriated the brass, which was used to exerting its command influence over the results of military trials. French politician Georges Clemenceau once remarked on this practice, quipping that 'Military justice is to justice as military music is to music.'

The brass had Len transferred to Iceland of all places. Why Iceland? Because it's a country entirely populated by white people. There are no non-white genes in their DNA pool. Drug companies for this reason use Iceland to test drugs. The US government had a deal with Iceland that they would never send a non-white GI to Iceland so as not to risk polluting their gene pool. The brass figured Weinglass, the trouble maker, would never be able to defend a black man again, at least not while he was in their military. Len cooled his heels until he was discharged, learning Icelandic in the meantime so he could speak directly to the Judges there without an encumbering translator. When he arrived in an Icelandic court for his first trial the steps leading up to the building were lined with spectators. He asked his driver why? They wanted to see Len. They had never seen a Jew before.

He was discharged from the Air Force in 1961 and went on to set up a one man law practice in Newark, New Jersey. When interviewed by the New York Times for Len's obituary, Len's friend and law colleague Michael Krinsky (Len was of counsel to the firm Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky and Lieberman of New York, NY) said he had first met Len in Newark in 1969. He considered Len 'a modern day Clarence Darrow'. Krinsky told the reporter that Newark 'was a rough place to be. A police department and a city administration that was racist and as terrifying as any in America, and there was Lenny representing civil rights people, political people, ordinary people who got charged with stuff and got beat up by the cops. He did it without fame or fortune, and that's what he kept doing, in one way or another.' He did it for 53 years, being admitted to the bars in New Jersey, California, and New York.

We all know of Len for his famous legal work in the Chicago Seven case with Abby Hoffman, Dave Dellinger and Tom Hayden during the Vietnam War period. We remember his expertise in advocating for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. He finally got his friend Kathy Boudin out of prison after 23 years. He represented Puerto Rican independentista Juan Segarra for 15 years. In the Palestine 8 case, where the defendants were charged with aiding the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, he was part of a team which stopped their deportation. That took 20 years. David Cole, his co- counsel along with Marc Van der Hout, remembers that Len '…coined the term 'terrorologist' while cross-examining the government's expert witness on the PLO. He was a joy to work with in the courtroom. Our immigration judge, who was Lenny's age, always eagerly wanted to know whether 'Mr. Weinglass' would be appearing whenever there was a proceeding.'

Len took the tough political cases, the seemingly impossible ones where his clients were charged with heavy crimes like kidnap, espionage and murder. 'He wasn't drawn to making money. He was drawn to defending justice,' Daniel Ellsberg said. 'He felt in many cases he was representing one person standing against the state. He was on the side of the underdog. He was also very shrewd in his judgment of juries.' Len observed that a typical phone call to him started out with the caller saying '‘You're the fifth lawyer I've spoken to'. Then I get interested.'

The case of The Cuban Five was Len's last major case. He worked on it for years up to the time of his passing, even reading a court submission from his bed in Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. The case highlighted what Len considered the U.S. government's hypocrisy in its 'war against terror.' Len came into the matter at the appellate level after the Five had been convicted by a prejudiced jury in Miami. His client Antonio Guererro and the others were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against the U.S. sometime in the future. They were sent from Cuba to Miami by the government of Cuba to spy, not on the U.S., but on the counter-revolutionary Cubans in Miami who were launching terrorist activities from Florida directed at persons and property in Cuba, attempting to sabotage the Cuban tourist economy. They gathered information on the Miami based terrorists, compiling a lengthy dossier on their murderous activities and turned it over to the FBI. They asked the U.S. government to stop the terrorists, who were targeting the Cuban tourist industry by planting bombs at the Havana airport, on buses, and in an hotel, killing an Italian vacationer. But instead of stopping the terrorists, the U.S. government used the dossier to figure out the identities of the Cuban Five, had them arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to long prison terms.

What Len said about the use of the conspiracy charge is illustrative of his precision and clarity of thought.

 "Conspiracy has always been the charge used by the prosecution in political cases. A conspiracy is an agreement between people to commit a substantive crime. By using the charge of conspiracy, the government is relieved of the requirement that the underlying crime be proven. All the government has to prove to a jury is that there was an agreement to do the crime. The individuals charged with conspiracy are convicted even if the underlying crime was never committed. In the case of the Five, the Miami jury was asked to find that there was an agreement to commit espionage. The government never had to prove that espionage actually happened. It could not have proven that espionage occurred. None of the Five sought or possessed any top secret information or US national defense secrets."

Len was drawn to men and women accused of doing extraordinary acts of bravery and resistance. A sampling of some of his cases over his 53 years of practicing law are:

  • 1971: Represented Kenneth Gibson who became the first African-American mayor of Newark, New Jersey in a taxpayer's suit which led to his candidacy and reclaimed the largest real estate asset owned by the City of Newark.
  • 1971: The defense of Anthony Russo who was charged with Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers trial for the release of classified documents on the history of U.S.-Vietnam relations.
  • 1972: The defense of John Sinclair, Chairman of the White Panther Party in Detroit, Michigan. The case came before the Supreme Court, resulting in a landmark decision prohibiting the government's use of electronic surveillance without a warrant.
  • 1973: The defense of Angela Davis who was charged with murder in connection with a shootout at the Marin County Courthouse in an attempted escape by inmates in California.
  • 1974: The defense of 8 Vietnamese students who faced deportation from the U.S. as the result of their political activities in opposition to the war.
  • 1975: Represented Jane Fonda in her suit against Richard Nixon, et al. for unlawful harassment and violation of her constitutional rights of free speech and assembly resulting from her public activities in opposition to the war in Vietnam.
  •  1976: The defense of Chol Soo Lee, the only Korean on death row in the United States in California.
  •  1976: The defense of Bill and Emily Harris, members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, charged with the kidnap of Patricia Hearst.
  •  1977: The defense of the Altmore Brothers, black inmates in Alabama, who organized a prisoners' union and were then charged with murder.
  • 1978 The defense of Paul Skyhorse and Richard Mohawk, two organizers for the American Indian Movement, charged with first degree murder in the longest trial in the history of Los Angeles to that point.
  • 1980: The defense of Mark Loc, a Chinese-American member of the Communist Workers Party, charged with the attempted bombing of the National Shipbuilding Company in San Diego.
     
  • 1981: The defense of Kiko Martinez, a Mexican-American attorney and political activist, charged with a series of attempted bombings in Colorado.
     
  • 1982: The defense of Salpi Kozibiukian, an Armenian patriot charged with being part of a conspiracy to plant a small explosive device at a freight terminal of Canada Airlines at the Los Angeles International Airport.
  • 1982: The defense of Alvin Johnson, a black inmate in the State of Georgia who faced the death penalty as the result of charges that he killed a prison guard at the Reidville prison.
  • 1983: The defense of James Simmons, a Muckleshoot Indian from Oregon who faced the death penalty as the result of charges that he killed a guard at the Walla Walla prison in the State of Washington.
  • 1985: The defense of Stephen Bingham, an attorney charged with smuggling a gun into George Jackson in his attempted prison escape in 1971.
  • 1986: The defense of Spiver Gordon, a black political organizer and former associate of Martin Luther King, charged in Alabama with voter fraud as the result of organizing a registration drive.
  • 1987: The defense of Amy Carter, daughter of President Jimmy Carter, charged with l5 other students at the University of Massachusetts with the seizure of a building in protest over CIA recruitment.
  • 1988: The defense of Katya Komisurak, an anti-nuclear activist, charged with destroying a computer at Vandenburg Air Force base which was part of a first strike weapons system.
  • 1992: The defense of Peter Lumsdaine, an anti-nuclear activist, who was charged with destroying a Navstar satellite, part of a first-strike system, at a Rockwell International facility just prior to its being launched.
  • 1993: The defense of Marjorie Peters, an aide to the first African-American mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, charged in a politically motivated prosecution brought by the Bush Justice Department.
  • 1997: Served as legal advisor to a former Green Beret who was investigating the deaths of a thousands of Laotians, particularly children, who have been victimized since the end of the Vietnam War by unexploded anti- personnel bombs dropped by U.S. aircraft.
  • 1998: Represented Larry Hildes, a California attorney, who was arrested and had his hand broken by California police while serving as a legal observer for protestors who were opposed to logging the redwoods in the Headwaters of California.
  • 1998: Represented Majid Saatchi, an Iranian national residing in the United States, who was arrested and prosecuted for shouting 'murderer' at the visiting foreign minister of Iran at the United Nations in New York.
  • 1999: Filed a federal habeas corpus action in the federal court in Philadelphia on behalf of Mumia Abu Jamal, an African American journalist and political activist, who has been on death row in Pennsylvania for a quarter of a century awaiting execution for the killing of a police officer, a crime he has steadfastly denied.
  • 2001: Filed application for parole on behalf of Kathy Boudin, a member of the Weather Underground, who was sentenced to 20 years to life in l984 for her participation in the robbery of a Brinks truck.
  • 2002: Filed a federal habeas corpus action in the Federal Court in Alexandria, VA on behalf of Kurt Stand, convicted of espionage on behalf of East Germany in l998 as a result of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act searches of his home, including the planting of a microphone in the marital bedroom.

Len grew up with his two adoring older sisters Elaine Nicastro and Natalie Franzblau and his much younger admiring brother Steve Weinglass during the depression in Bellville, New Jersey, a town near New York City which had a small Jewish community of some 200 families. Len's grandfather, his mother's father, was the head of the congregation and used to lead the religious services there. He owned some properties in New York City. Len's father Sol Weinglass owned two local drugstores. Business went bad for both men. Len's parents lost their home and had to move the family in with relatives for awhile. His grandfather, like many businessmen during that time of economic disaster, faced with ruin, killed himself.

'Childhood shows the man,' Milton wrote, 'as morning shows the day'. When he was nine years old Lenny had a dear friend, Johnny; they were inseparable, palling around together all the time. They had a fight. Lenny came home with a badly blackened eye. His father asked what happened. Lenny replied that he was in a fight. But you must have really gotten in some punches too, inquired his father, you must have given it back to him? No said Len, I didn't hit him. Why, his father asked incredulously? Because, replied Len, 'he was my friend.'

Len was a very successful and popular high school student in Kearney, New Jersey, a town near Bellville where his family had moved. He played saxophone, was tall and handsome, and sported a fifties pompadour hair style, spending a lot of grooming time behind a closed door in front of the bathroom mirror. His father jokingly complained that he had raised a girl. As vice-president of the senior class he was expected to go to the senior prom. Time went past. Prom night was approaching. Still he had no date. His sisters asked him whom he was taking to the dance. He wouldn't tell. But he knew. He escorted a plain wall flower who otherwise might not have gone.

When Len graduated he wanted to take a trip across the country to California. He got his father to drive him to the highway. His dad sat in his car weeping as Len hoisted his thumb at passing trucks. Soon an l8 wheeler stopped and Len piled in. He called often from the road reporting that he was frequently picked up by cars and trucks, that everyone was nice to him, buying him meals and that he was making good time on his trip west.

He didn't take any identification with him. There was a lot of anti-semitism in the U.S. in the early fifties. Len didn't want people seeing his last name was Weinglass and identifying him as a Jew. When he got to California he got work on a truck farm, doing stoop farm labor with Japanese agricultural workers. One night one of them was killed. Len was afraid that without an ID he would be a suspect. He jumped the fence in the middle of the night and got out of there.

Len was reserved, modest, but self-confident, unflamboyant and precise. He was, as attorney John Mage has written, '…a meticulous, well-prepared litigator and with an extraordinary degree of practical wisdom and foresight.' Len's dear friend the distinguished attorney Marty Garbus said Len was the best jury selector and cross-examiner he had every know. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark wrote to Len in the hospital that 'You have been an inspiration to me since we first met in l969. Your quiet, selfless, relentless, brilliant and heroic commitment to truth and justice – against all odds- has made a difference worldwide. Having been at your side here at home, in Chicago, Iran, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and for the Cuban Five I can testify to your sole, selfless commitment to a world of peace and principle and good times along the way.'

Gerardo Hernandez, one of the Cuban Five, who is serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison in California, remembered Len's last visit to him, which was shortly before he went into the hospital.

"Not long ago Len came to visit me and we worked for several hours preparing for the next step of my appeal. I noticed at the time that he was tired. I was worried With his advanced age that he was driving alone after a long trip from New York. The weather was bad and the roads from the airport up to Victorville wind through the mountains surrounding the high desert. I mentioned my concern to him but he did not pay it any attention. That was the way he was, nothing stopped him. "

Len had an ironic and wry sense of humor. He had a large one room cabin atop of a high hill overlooking the Rondout reservoir in New York's Catskill mountains. He lived up there in a teepee off and on for several years before designing the cottage. He had a special joy, which he inherited from his mother Clara, gardening and raising fruit trees. This was an especially difficult pursuit because he had mistakenly planted the trees on the south side of the hill where they got plenty of sun but were vulnerable to a false spring, blooming early, then getting damaged by a frost, which could occur up there as late as June. Nonetheless Len persisted and sometimes got a crop of apples, pears, and plums. The crop would then be eaten by the neighborhood bears. 'I grow the fruit,' Len complained, 'then the bears come and eat it and I go to Gristedes.' With regard to his work in the courtroom with his friend and colleague the colorful Bill Kunstler during the the Chicago 7 case, Len reflected that he was often referred to as 'the other lawyer.'

He kept his sense of humor even during those terrible final days at Montefiore Hospital. His surgeon operated on him but abandoned his attempt to remove what turned out to be a large spreading malignant tumor, undetected by the pre-op CT scan. When the surgeon saw what it really was, that it was an inoperable tumor, he could do nothing but sew Len back up and tell him the bad news. Len looked up at us from his bed in the recovery room after being informed by the surgeon, accessed the situation, and said, simply, 'summary judgement.' And so it was. He lived but another six weeks, steadily declining, never getting to go home, never giving up, even as several doctors told him 'you are in the final stretch.'

Len was strong and vigorous up to his last illness . Since his high school days he never lost his interest in football and closely followed the professional game. He was a Giants fan of course, but sentimentally he liked the Green Bay Packers because they were the only team in the league owned not by billionaires, but by the municipality of Green Bay. While Len was in Montefiore hospital the Packers made it into the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers. ' Want to bet on the game,' I asked. 'How about five bucks.' He raised his finger to the sky. 'Ten?,' I ventured. 'No,' he whispered. 'Fifty.' So my nephew Ben got us a bookie in Connecticut and we put down fifty bucks apiece. The Packers were favored so we had to give away 3 ½ points. Len advised that this was a responsible bet. It sure was. The Packers wound up winning in the last quarter by 4 points. I congratulated Len on his sagacity. That win lifted his spirits.

Len was a longtime member of the National Lawyers Guild and served as a time as the co-chair of its intenational committee. He was the recipient of the Guild's Ernie Goodman Award, named after the extraordinary Detroit socialist lawyer and Guild leader who helped build the auto workers union and later organized the Guild to send its members down south to protect black people during the civil rights movment.

The Dean of Yale Law School Robert C. Post wrote Len's sister Elaine to express his sympathy, writing that 'Leonard Weinglass lived a full and admirable life in the law and exemplified the spirit of citizenship that lawyers at their very best display. He brought great honor to the legal community and to Yale Law School, which takes pride in all he did and was.'

Len was a Jew, but rejected the idea that it was racial ties or bonds of blood that made up the Jewish community, seeing that view as a degenerate philosophy leading to chauvinism and cruelty. He rejected Jewish nationalism, embracing instead an unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated.

Len was not religious. The emergency room admitting nurse asked him what his religion was so she could fill out the questionnaire. He paused and answered 'leave it blank.' Two weeks later when he was admitted to the hospital he again was asked what his religion was. 'None,' he answered. Religion to Len was superstition. Being part of a sect was too narrow and confining for Len. The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition. The historian Isaac Deutscher had a phrase for it, 'the non-Jewish Jew.' Len was in line with the great revolutionaries of modern thought; Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Freud, and Einstein, whose photo hung in Len's Chelsea loft. These people went beyond the boundaries of Judaism, finding it too narrow, archaic, constricting.

I don't wish to stretch the comparison. Len was not so much a radical thinker as a man of action. But his intellectual understanding – he was well educated and widely read – powered his activity. He had in common with these great thinkers the idea that for knowledge to be real it must be acted upon. As Marx observed, 'Hitherto philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.'

Like his intellectual predecessors. Len saw reality in a state of flux, as dynamic, not static, and he was aware of the constantly changing and contradictory nature of society. Len was essentially an optimist and shared with the great Jewish revolutionaries an optimistic belief in the solidarity of humankind.

Len died in the evening of March 23, 2011 as spring was approaching in New York. He had plans to celebrate Passover in April, as usual, with his family in New Jersey. He knew quite a lot about Passover, led his family's observance at the seder every year, and kept up a file on the holiday. He liked the idea that the Jews had the chutzpah to conflate their own flight from slavery with spring and the liberation of nature.

He had plans to tend his fruit trees on the side of the hill next to his Catskill cabin. He would have put in a vegetable garden near his three block long driveway, which frequently washed out and which he repaired with sysiphean regularity. He would have set out birdseed on the cabin's porch rail, where he would sit in a lounge chair on a platform and watch the songbirds feed.

He loved being out on that porch, high up on a hill, particularly at day's end, seeing the sun go down over the Rondout reservoir which supplied some of the drinking water to New York City. Back in l976 he told a student reporter for UCLA's Daily Bruin that leading a committed life was satisfying, fulfilling, and that was what made him happy.

He will be remembered personally as a good, generous, and loyal friend, a gentle and kind person; politically as a great persuasive speaker, an acute analyst of the political scene, and a far-seeing visionary. Professionally Len Weinglass will live on as one of the great lawyers of his time, joining the legal pantheon of leading twentieth century advocates for justice along with Clarence Darrow, Leonard Boudin, Arthur Kinoy, Ernest Goodman, and William Kunstler.

'Lenny cannot be replaced,' wrote his friend Sandra Levinson. 'There are no words for the loss we all feel. Do something brave, put yourself out there for someone, fight for someone's dignity, do something to honor this courageous just man.'

Leonard Irving Weinglass: Presente.  

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