William Kunstler was the flamboyant lead defense attorney in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. It was obvious to all that Kunstler chose sides in the battleground of Judge Hoffman's courtroom and fully joined his clients' cause. He ate, danced, drank, and demonstrated with the defendants, causing the judge to observe at one point, "You get awfully chummy with your clients." Kunstler was a man with a huge ego, and the press covering the trial frequently accused him of "showboating." It was clear that Kunstler had the confidence to "wing it," but often his lack of preparation showed during cross-examination or argument. Kunstler engaged in increasingly bitter confrontations with Judge Hoffman as the trial proceeded; some confrontations were no doubt calculated melodrama, others spontaneous expressions of outrage. Kunstler's performance earned him a sentence of over four years in prison for contempt.
Kunstler grew up in New York City. He described himself as "a terrible kid until I reached high school." During his teenage year in the Central Park West area, Kunstler belonged to a gang called the Red Devils that engaged in such pursuits as stealing from gum machines and breaking windows. Kunstler straightened himself out, became an "A" student, and went on to pick up degrees from Yale and Columbia Law School.
A few years out of law school, Kunstler turned from a small business and family law practice to civil liberties law. In his autobiography My Life as a Radical Lawyer, Kunstler described his decades of attempting to put the American criminal justice system on trial. His clients over the years included Lenny Bruce, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, American Indian Movement leaders, Jack Ruby, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Islamic terrorists.
On Labor Day, 1995, William Kunstler died of a heart attack at age 76.
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