Len Weinglass, Atney & Counselor at Law (1933-2011)

Len was not a 1960s radical. He was something more unusual, a 1950s radical. He developed his values, his critical thinking and worldview in a time when non-conforming was rare. In 1980, he told a newspaper interviewer in Santa Barbara that, “I would classify myself as a radical American. I am anti-capitalist in this sense—I don’t believe capitalism is compatible with democracy.” If given a chance, he thought that another world, a non-capitalist world, was possible. He saw legal work as his contribution to the collective work of the movement. He didn’t care about making a fee. “I want to spend my time defending people who have committed their time to progressive change. That’s the criteria. 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 3rd of 4 children, he grew up in a Jewish community of 200 families in Bellville, New Jersey and attended high school in nearby Kearney where he was a star end on the football team and vice-president of his class. Len went to George Washington University in DC on a scholarship and in 1955 was accepted at Yale Law School.


There was a story that he liked to tell about his college job 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 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 Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers case.


Len went from Yale in l958 directly into the Air Force. In those days, because of the draft, there was no choice. Len was a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corp and rose to the rank of captain. While Len was with JAG, the Air Force charged a black airman with some sort of crime. Len was assigned the case and got him acquitted. which infuriated the brass who were used to exerting their command over military trials.


Len was then transferred to Iceland, of all places, because it was a country entirely populated by white people. There were no non-white genes in their DNA pool. The U.S. government had a deal with Iceland that they would never send a non-white GI there so as not to risk “polluting their gene pool.” The brass figured Weinglass, the troublemaker, would never be able to defend a black man again, at least not while he was in their military. So Len cooled his heels until he was discharged, meanwhile learning Icelandic so he could speak directly to the judges without a 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 in l961 and went on to set up a law practice in Newark, New Jersey. When interviewed recently by the New York Times for Len’s obituary, his friend and law colleague Michael Krinsky said he had first met Len in Newark in l969 and considered him “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 and beat up by the cops. He did it without fame or fortune and that’s what he kept doing in one way or another” for 53 years, during which time he was admitted to the bars in New Jersey, California, and New York.


We all know of Len from his famous legal work in the Chicago Seven case with Abby Hoffman, Dave Dellinger, and Tom Hayden during the Vietnam War. We remember his expertise in advocating for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. He got Kathy Boudin out of prison after 23 years. He represented Puerto Rican independentista Juan Segarra for l5 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—it 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.”


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 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 a 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, have 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. In any case, it could not have proven that espionage occurred. None of the Five sought or possessed any top secret information or U.S. national defense secrets.”


A sampling of some of his cases over his 53 years of practicing law are:


·       l971: 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, chair 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 eight 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.


·       l976: The defense of Bill and Emily Harris, members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, charged with the kidnap of Patricia Hearst.


·       l977: The defense of the Altmore Brothers, black inmates in Alabama who organized a prisoners’ union and were then charged with murder.


·       l978: 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.


·       l981: The defense of Kiko Martinez, a Mexican-American attorney and political activist, charged with a series of attempted bombings in Colorado.


·       l982: The defense of Salpi Kozibiukian, an Armenian patriot charged with being part of a conspiracy to plant a small explosive device at a Canada Airlines freight terminal in the Los Angeles International Airport.


·       l982: 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 Reidville prison.


·       l983: 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.


·       l985: The defense of Stephen Bingham, an attorney charged with smuggling a gun to 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.


·       l988: The defense of Katya Komisurak, an anti-nuclear activist, charged with destroying a computer at Vandenberg Air Force base, which was part of a first strike weapons system.


·       l992: 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.


·       l993: 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.


·       l997: Legal advisor to a former Green Beret who was investigating the deaths of thousands of Laotians, particularly children, who had been victimized since the end of the Vietnam War by unexploded anti-personnel bombs dropped by U.S. aircraft.


·       l998: 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 opposed to the logging of 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.


·       l999: Filed a 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, Virginia 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 bedroom.


Len was a long-time member of the National Lawyers Guild and served for a time as the co-chair of its interna
tional 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 movement.


Len 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 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 judgment.” And so it was.


Len died in the evening of March 23, 2011. 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.


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.”


He will be remembered as a good, generous, and loyal friend, a gentle and kind person, a persuasive speaker, an acute analyst of the political scene, and a far-seeing visionary. Len Weinglass will live on as one of the great lawyers of his time.“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.



Michael Steven Smith is an activist, lawyer, and the author, editor, and co-editor of six books, most recently editing The Emerging Police State, by William M. Kunstler. He is a co-host on the radio show “Law and Disorder,” organizes the Left Forum in NYC, and serves on the board of directors for the Center for Constitutional Rights. Photo 1: Len Weinglass and William Kuntsler, 1970, photo by Gary Settle; photo 2 is Weinglass talking to reporters regarding the Cuban 5 case, 2009, photo from www,freethefive.org; photo 3 is o Weinglass speaking at an anti-war rally, 2003, photo by Gloria Williams.