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Leonard Weinglass.

Attorney Leonard Weinglass stumbled onto fame when he found himself side-by-side with William Kunstler representing defendants in the Chicago Eight trial in 1969. Today, at age sixty-two, he is still fighting against long odds in the court system. His biggest challenge these days is as counsel for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the black journalist who is on death row in Pennsylvania, convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. Ever since Abu-Jamal received a stay of execution following national protests last summer, Weinglass has been petitioning the courts for a retrial based on new evidence.

Prosecution witnesses have changed their stories. A doctor's report, which the jury never saw, claims that the bullet removed from the police officer's brain does not match the caliber of the alleged murder weapon. Judge Albert Sabo, the original trial judge who grudgingly granted the stay, turned the first petition down flat. Sabo is the embodiment of a hanging judge. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he has delivered more than twice the death sentences of any other judge in the nation. Weinglass has appealed Sabo's decision denying a retrial.

Weinglass devotes most of his conscious hours to his work. His cases take him all over the world. Usually, however, he lives and works alone in his Manhattan office ("I commute across a small living space") and describes his daily life as "boringly consistent - not martyrdom and not excessive." His demanding schedule ended his last intimate relationship more than twenty years ago. His past clients have included Jane Fonda, Amy Carter, and Angela Davis.

In contrast to Kunstler's growling, emphatic style, Weinglass has the tone and approach of a quietly passionate reasoner, gentle and persuasive.

Q: How did you become involved with the Chicago Eight?

Weinglass: I was a lawyer in Newark in the 1960s. I had a little brownstone in the ghetto. Tom Hayden came to Newark with the Students for a Democratic Society. I defended him on a number of minor offenses. When he was indicted in Chicago he asked me to come defend him. It was the first time I'd done a case outside of Newark. The number of lawyers got whittled down to Bill and myself I was assigned to represent Tom, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, and John Froines. Tom said to me, "This case is going to change your life." I said to Tom, "Don't be ridiculous." But the case did change my life. My relationship with Tom changed my life. I appreciate how patient he was developing me into more of a political understanding of my work. He helped me understand that it wasn't just an issue of defending the poor and the powerless. I had to become part of a larger movement that sought to change the system. That was something I had resisted. I felt that I was going to work on one case at a time. Tom convinced me that the only way to be effective was to address the underlying causes that generate these cases.

Q: What memories of the case still stir emotions in you?

Weinglass: The fact that the U.S. government could fashion a case and seek to put away people because of their political dissent was really a major eye-opener for me. I had read and heard of such things, but I had never been directly involved in such an event.

This case was a legal atrocity. That was the word used by the former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. There had been a grand jury sitting since the end of the Democratic Convention in August. They sat into January and they didn't return any indictments. The evidence that was produced, I'm told by Ramsey Clark, indicated that indictments were inappropriate. Ramsey Clark left office January 20. Richard Nixon took over. John Mitchell became Attorney General and sure enough they got an indictment.

Q: How and why did you get involved in Abu-Jamal's case?

Weinglass: At the end of 1991, a group of his friends and family members came to New York to talk to me about getting involved in his case. I entered his case in 1992 because Mumia is a political prisoner who is on death row because of his beliefs.

At his penalty hearing the prosecution wrongly put before the jury the fact that twelve years earlier, when he was a teenager, a member of the Black Panther party, he made statements to the press. When he was sixteen years old he used a quote by chairman Mao Tse-tung: "Political power flows out of a barrel of a gun," a quote Ronald Reagan used in justifying aid to the contras. It's a quote Mumia used as a teenager but it was totally distorted. He used it two weeks after Fred Hampton was murdered in Chicago. It was his response to that execution. He was referring to the fact that the police exercise political power in this country by their use of violent means. That was what he was referring to and that's what was twisted to the jury.

After hearing about his political past, the jury had no problem imposing the death penalty within one hour. He is also an African-American male charged with the killing of a white police officer. The case has major racial issues as well as political ones. For both those reasons, I took the case.

Q: What was your initial meeting with him like?

Weinglass: He had not had a good experience with a trial lawyer and an appellate lawyer. His papers to the Supreme Court were filed without his ever having an opportunity to read them. He was justifiably concerned and suspicious of lawyers. He knew my history, which I think reassured him. We are now as tight-knit between lawyer and client as I have ever been with anyone I've worked with.

Anyone who has ever met Mumia is immediately impressed with the utter humanity of the man and the complete unlikelihood of his having shot and killed officer Faulkner. It is totally beyond the realm of probability for Mumia to have been engaged in that kind of activity. Even the prosecutor last summer had to acknowledge that if Mumia had done this, it must have been a completely isolated incident.

Q: Were you and Mumia surprised when the political activity eventually won him the stay of execution?

Weinglass: Mumia was not optimistic. He thought he was going to be executed on August 17, particularly after repeated applications for a stay of execution had been denied. We had prepared papers for the Pennsylvania supreme court. We knew Judge Sabo was on a track of consistently denying the application for a stay. We had also prepared applications for the federal court and even up to the Supreme Court if we had to. We had all the paperwork ready to go, and we envisioned on the day of the stay of execution that this was going to be a legal battle all the way down to the night of his execution.

We did not anticipate Judge Sabo would do something he had never done before in his long history on the bench: grant a stay. But he did it, we believe, as a way of forestalling the massive demonstration that was planned in Philadelphia that weekend, and we think he did it as a result of the pressure brought to bear on him directly by the powers that be in Philadelphia.

As a lawyer I couldn't see how they could refuse us. Mumia had appeals ahead of him. He had an appeal to the Pennsylvania supreme court which was not discretionary. It had to be granted. He had an appeal to the federal habeas-corpus system that had to be given to him. So it was inconceivable to me that he would not be given a stay.

The law was quite clearly in our favor, but I wasn't at all sure that we wouldn't see a major miscarriage of justice with the execution of a prisoner while he still had appeals pending. You have to remember that in Pennsylvania, one man was executed last year while he still had a hearing pending the following week on his mental competency. So I couldn't be absolutely assured that they wouldn't go ahead and execute him.

Q: How did both of you feel when he got the stay?

Weinglass: Mumia was overwhelmed. He was virtually speechless and shocked. I was very pleased and gratified that the movement had done this. So of course my reaction was one of enormous relief. Having said that, after we had our moment of jubilation, the hard reality set in that Mumia would remain on death row.

The governor has already gone on record saying that just as soon as Mumia is finished with these appeals he will without a doubt sign a new execution order. So we remain under a very dark cloud. If we don't get a new trial Mumia will face execution, this time without any appeals.

Q: How do you think you would have felt had the execution gone through?

Weinglass: I don't even want to think of that. It would have had a devastating effect on me personally and politically and professionally. I could not deal with the prospect of Mumia being executed. I've done about five death-penalty cases, and fortunately none have resulted in the death penalty. To lose a client and friend in that fashion, where the date is set, is something I have discussed with other lawyers who have gone through the experience. And in every case, it has left a permanent scar on them. No one recovers.

Bill Kunstler represented Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers and he lost them all to assassination. Bill's attitude was, you're part of a worldwide struggle and it takes casualties. If you can't accept that, then you have no business being in it. So I guess you ultimately rationalize it, and you come out where you are just a soldier in an ongoing war. There are comrades who are going to be lost. If you are truly committed to the struggle, you keep going.

Q: You've said Mumia's is a defining case of the 1990s. Why?

Weinglass: He's the only person on death row facing a financed national campaign to see to it that he's executed. The Fraternal Order of Police had developed a campaign around Mumia's case. He also has a large support network determined to save his life. People are lining up on both sides, and the question of whether Mumia lives or dies will test the strength of the contestants.

Q: What's Mumia's life like these days?

Weinglass: The way he describes it. the only way people can relate to how he lives is if they lock themselves in their bathroom for twenty-three hours a day and one hour a day leave the bathroom under high security to go to a cage to exercise. Live like that for fourteen years. and you get some sense of how he's been living.

Q: There seem to be a lot of similarities between Judge Julius Hoffman and Judge Sabo. Is that true?

Weinglass: I would much prefer to appear before Judge Hoffman, who had a sense of humor and was far less draconian. His own personal bias was mitigated by his wit and his peculiar charm. But Judge Sabo is utterly lacking in any of those qualities.

Q: I would think Hoffman would be the last one you'd ever want to see again.

Weinglass: No. Bill and I talked about this, and over the years we developed sort of a wistful regard for our time before him, with one exception - his chaining and gagging of Bobby Seale is unforgivable. If I have any strong negative feelings toward him that remain it's for that one episode.

He had a razor-like wit which he would constantly use against you in court. I'd find myself angry and upset but amused at the same time. He constantly got my name wrong, which I'm convinced he was doing on purpose. Abbie finally had to write my name down on a big piece of cardboard and hold it up in front of me like a contestant on a television show. I think he appreciated Abbie's superior entertainment value.

Q: Are you surprised Abbie and Jerry ended up as they did?

Weinglass: No. I staved close to Abbie until his death. He stayed political up till the end. He maintained his politics. He got into environmental work. He kept broadening his view of things. Jerry changed. He decided to go into venture capitalism. Jerry only involved himself in those kinds of enterprises he felt were good for people. He did it without a complete abandonment of politics, with the thought of working within the system. I can't say his life was a statement in opposition to his earlier politics. There was some consistency there.

I was disappointed in Jerry, but Abbie and Jerry developed very differently politically. Abbie went to the South. He actively participated in the civil-rights movement. He was clubbed in Mississippi. He was jailed. Jerry was a student leader on a college campus of a mostly white school. He didn't have the civil-rights background. Their development was reflected in where they ultimately ended up.

Q: Are you surprised Abbie died the way he did?

Weinglass. Yes, and I want to say something about that. I don't regard Abbie's death as a suicide. Abbie did not attempt to kill himself That's very evident from the manner in which he died. What he intended to do was end the pain [of manic depression]. If Abbie had intended to take his life it would have been done with a lot more flair and theatrics. It wouldn't have been alone. He was in a depressive state which people who don't undergo it have trouble understanding. You are wracked by such terrible pain emotionally that you will take anything and do anything to end the pain. I don't consider it a suicide. I consider it a death as a result of a severe illness.

Q: Another case you have is defending those involved in coordinating t he Pastors for Peace shipment of medical supplies and computers to Cuba. You're fighting to protect them from a subpoena to appear before a grand jury. Why?

Weinglass: I'm one of a group of lawyers defending the Pastors for Peace. This is a critical case because political organizers should not be forced to testify before federal prosecutors behind closed doors without the presence of their lawyers. This was a tactic that was used by the Nixon Administration. The Puerto-Rican independence movement was damaged by this. People went to jail rather than comply It was a tactic that was widely used and widely discredited. We thought we had seen the last of it. But here it is again being used by the Clinton Administration.

It's a political witch hunt. It's being used to stamp out a group that's organizing against a policy of the government. We cannot testify against each other behind closed doors. Anything we have to say we say openly and in public.

Q: Why did you become a lawyer?

Weinglass: I decided at a very early age, like ten or twelve, that I wanted to be a lawyer involved in political cases. My uncle was a lawyer, and he gave me - when I was in third or fourth grade - the works by and about Clarence Darrow. It struck me immediately as being the most worthwhile thing you can do with your life.

Q: It seems people are more bloodthirsty than ever about the death penalty. Do you see some reason for hope that public and judicial opinion will change?

Weinglass. I see some amelioration. Massachusetts, South Dakota, and Iowa rejected the death penalty in their state legislatures last year. The Supreme Court in 1995 reversed three death-penalty cases out of four that they decided. The new Clinton appointees seem to have a hopeful effect on that court. I think the low point was reached when a death-row inmate was denied a hearing by the Supreme Court with the opinion stating that evidence of innocence might not be sufficient to stop an execution. I think there's a slow realization that the use of the death penalty has become utterly irrational and out-of-control. You also have a poll of the chiefs of police last year and they were asked to indicate the ten things they needed most to stop crime. In descending order, the tenth thing they listed was the death penalty.

Q: The courts are pretty fickle: You can do everything right on your end and still not win. Does that take its toll?

Weinglass: It takes a toll, but I don't want that to sound like a complaint. I agree with what Ralph Nader said when people asked him how much he sacrificed. He said he considered himself fortunate to live in the top I percent of the planet. I think I probably do as well. The lawyers that I've observed in other countries who do this kind of work have either been in prison or assassinated or face real risks. I don't. I always have a roof and food and a little money left over to enjoy. I'm not missing anything. You go into this work with your eyes open. The government has a home-field advantage that's enormous. You don't go into it necessarily to win. You go into it to stand by those with whom you agree, to create space for dissent to exist. I look at it as being part of an ongoing struggle that has victories and defeats, that is going in a continuous direction.

Q: Is it a positive direction?

Weinglass: It's had remarkable successes. There have been remarkable changes. I'm also very cognizant of the power of reactive forces. But if you do political work you have to remain optimistic about the direction in which things are going. From the time I was very young and religious I have had a firm belief in ultimate justice. I still do.
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Title Annotation:activist attorney
Author:Ervin, Mike
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 1996
Words:3015
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