Leonard I. Weinglass, perhaps the nation’s pre-eminent progressive defense lawyer, who represented political renegades, government opponents and notorious criminal defendants in a half century of controversial cases, including the Chicago Seven, the Pentagon Papers and the Hearst kidnapping, died on Wednesday. He was 77 and lived in Manhattan.
The cause of death, at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, was pancreatic cancer, said Debbie Smith, a friend.
Mr. Weinglass was working as a lawyer in racially torn Newark in the late 1960s when he met Tom Hayden, a founder of the activist group Students for a Democratic Society, who was working there as well.
In 1968, when Mr. Hayden was indicted, along with seven others — the case was initially known as the Chicago Eight— for conspiring to incite a riot during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he reached out to Mr. Weinglass, who joined William M. Kunstler on the defense team in what turned out to be one of the most raucous trials in American history.
The defendants included Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, the leaders of the radically counter-cultural Youth International Party (a k a the Yippies), and the mutual disdain between them and Judge Julius J. Hoffman, who presided over the case, became a key element in their lawyers’ ability to paint the charges as politically motivated. At one point, Abbie Hoffman referred to the judge as his “illegitimate father” and renounced his last name. After he took the witness stand, Mr. Weinglass began the questioning by asking his name.
“My name is Abbie,” Mr. Hoffman said. “I’m an orphan of America.”
Five of the defendants were found guilty in the case, but the verdicts were reversed on appeal, and Judge Hoffman, who rarely got Mr. Weinglass’s name correct during the trial, had ordered one defendant, Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers, shackled and gagged in court, was upbraided in the appeals court ruling for his “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense.”
Mr. Seale’s case was later severed from that of the other seven.
Mr. Hayden, who roomed with Mr. Weinglass during the trial, said in an interview Thursday that the legal spectacle was “a morality play for all of the issues of the ’60s.” Of Mr. Weinglass, he added, “I would say he was the best courtroom lawyer I’ve known in my lifetime, and I’ve known a lot of them.”
Mr. Weinglass said after the trial that the court, obviously biased in his view, had shaken his faith in the law and, along with other events — the Kent State shootings, the invasion of Cambodia — had helped to radicalize him. By 1972, he had moved to Los Angeles and was defending Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst with the RAND Corporation. Disaffected with the Vietnam War, Mr. Ellsberg had, with the help of a colleague, Anthony Russo, copied the secret documents about the government’s conduct of the war that became known as the Pentagon Papers and eventually shared them with a reporter for The New York Times, which published them. The case against Mr. Ellsberg and Mr. Russo was eventually dismissed because of misconduct by the government in trying to gather evidence against them.
Mr. Weinglass defended Bill and Emily Harris, the founders of the radical group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, for the 1974 kidnapping of the newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, who eventually joined her kidnappers and helped them rob a bank, a crime for which she served two years in prison before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. The Harrises were convicted of the kidnapping and served eight years in jail.
In another notorious case, Mr. Weinglass, who had worked with the lawyer Leonard Boudin on the Pentagon Papers defense, defended Mr. Boudin’s daughter Kathy Boudin, who, as a member of the radical Weather Underground, had taken part in the robbery of a Brink’s security truck in 1981 in which two police officers and a Brink’s guard were killed. Ms. Boudin, who did not fire a gun during the robbery but was a passenger in a getaway van, eventually pleaded guilty to murder and robbery charges and served 22 years in prison. She was released on parole in 2006.
“Lenny was the best lawyer I’ve ever seen picking a jury and cross-examining witnesses,” said Martin Garbus, who was Mr. Weinglass’s co-counsel on the Kathy Boudin trial. “He was soft, he was gentle, he was not bombastic. You believed he was a man of dignity and honesty.”
Leonard Irving Weinglass was born in Belleville, N.J, on Aug. 27, 1933, and grew up in Kearny; he was a high school debater and an end on the football team. His father, Sol, was a pharmacist. He graduated from George Washington University and Yale Law school and was a lawyer for the Air Force before beginning his practice in Newark.
Mr. Weinglass was married once, late in life, and divorced. He is survived by two sisters, Elaine Nicastro, of Lebanon, N.J., and Natalie Franzblau, of Nutley, N.J., and a brother, Steven Weinglass, of Los Angeles.
Over the past 40 years, he represented many other prominent clients, including Angela Davis, the activist and educator who was acquitted of murder, conspiracy and kidnapping charges in the 1970 killing of a California judge, and Amy Carter, the daughter of President Carter, who along with others, including Abbie Hoffman, was arrested during a 1986 protest against the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency at the University of Massachusetts. She was acquitted of trespassing and disorderly conduct charges.
More recently, Mr. Weinglass was involved in the death-row appeals of Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose conviction in the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer has been shrouded in allegations of racism, police corruption and judicial bias; and the Cuban 5, who were convicted in 2001 of espionage against the United States but who say they were monitoring Miami-based terrorist groups that target Cuba.
“He filed a brief on March 5 in that case, a post-conviction motion to vacate the conviction of his client,” said Michael Krinsky of the New York law firm Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman, for whom Mr. Weinglass had worked since 1985. Mr. Krinsky, who called Mr. Weinglass “our era’s Clarence Darrow,” met him in 1969, in Newark.
“That was a rough place to be,” he said. “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.”