Cases Featured in the Film

Freedom Riders

freedom fighters jpgFrom the 1880s until the 1960s, most of the states in the United States enforced some "Jim Crow laws" (believed to have been named after a character in a traveling minstrel show), which called for the segregation of white and "colored" citizens. The laws, allegedly enacted in order to provide protection for "freedmen," or former slaves (who had been given liberty in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863), made intermarriage and cohabitation of blacks and whites illegal and required business owners to keep the races separate in such places as restaurants, restrooms, hospitals, parks, libraries, schools and public transportation vehicles.

In 1960, in Boynton v. Virginia the United States Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses that crossed state lines. In 1961, an interracial group of protesters sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality challenged continued segregation throughout the southern United States by traveling on interstate buses and integrating bus station waiting rooms and restaurants throughout the South. These protests, known as Freedom Rides, were met with violent reactions and protesters were attacked by angry mobs along the way. In Anniston, Alabama, a bus was fire-bombed; in Birmingham, riders were beaten. From May 20-22 in 1961, riders were assaulted in Montgomery, Alabama. Attorney general Robert F. Kennedy then sent federal marshals, who helped the group reach New Orleans safely.

The ACLU sent Kunstler to Jackson, Mississippi to show the organization's support for protesters who had been arrested and convicted for disturbing the peace during the rides. Kunstler, angered by the racism and abuse he saw there, became active in fighting the cases and was instrumental in using a little known statute to have cases moved from conservative Mississippi to more supportive federal courts.

» Langum, David J. William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
» National Park Service.

Chicago Eight

On September 24, 1969, eight protesters went on trial in Chicago, accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. They had been indicted for violating the so-called "H. Rap Brown law," tagged onto the Civil Rights Bill earlier that year by conservative senators, which made it illegal to cross state lines in order to incite a riot.

bobby seale bound and gagged court cartoon jpgThe defendants included David Dellinger of the National Mobilization Committee; Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society; Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, founders of the Youth International Party ("Yippies"); and two lesser known activists, Lee Weiner and John Froines. An eighth defendant, Bobby Seale, the national chairman of the Black Panther Party, began the trial with the others, but when he was denied a request to represent himself he loudly protested the move and called judge Julius Hoffman a racist. Hoffman had Seale publicly bound and gagged, prompting Kunstler to call the courtroom a "medieval torture chamber." Hoffman sentenced Seale to four years of imprisonment for contempt because of his courtroom outbursts and eventually ordered Seale severed from the case. He was never retried.

Kunstler, co-counsel Leonard Weinglass and the defendants staged a sort of political theater in the courtroom over the five-month trial, using it as a platform to attack Nixon, the Vietnam War, racism and oppression. Poets, musicians and other counter-culture figures were called to testify, and defendants laughed, cried and spoke their minds.

On February 19, 1970, Hoffman found the remaining seven defendants and their attorneys guilty of 175 counts of contempt of court, handing them sentences of two to four years. None were found guilty of conspiracy, but all but two were found guilty of intent to riot and sentenced to five years in prison. The criminal convictions were overturned in 1972 and most of the contempt charges were also dropped.

Kunstler received a sentence of four and a half years in prison for 24 counts of contempt; the charges were reversed two years later by a U.S. Court of Appeals. He was convicted of two counts in a new trial, but was not sentenced to prison.

» This Day in History, September 24, 1969: The "Chicago Seven" go on trial.
» This Day in History, February 19, 1970: Chicago Seven sentenced.
» Encyclopedia of World Biography. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2005.

Other good sources/resources:
» Famous American Trials: "The Chicago Seven" Trial.
» Schultz, John. The Chicago Conspiracy Trial. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
» Feiffer, Jules, et al. Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Eight. New York: New Press, 2006.

Attica Prison Uprising

On Monday, September 13, 1971, what had begun four days earlier as a prisoner uprising at the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, ended in the murder of 42 people -- 32 prisoners and 10 state employees -- by law enforcement.

attica jpgFor years, inmates at Attica had tried to get the prison to address the inhumane living conditions at the facility through peaceful means. The persistence of these conditions resulted in a level of anger that erupted on September 9, 1971, when inmates rioted. Large parts of the prison were seized and 40 hostages were taken.

Having taken control of one of the prison's yards, the inmates demanded a federal takeover of the prison, better conditions, amnesty for the revolt and the removal of the prison's superintendent. In their statement, they criticized the "unmitigated oppression wrought by the racist administrative network of this prison throughout the year" and the "ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States."

Kunstler was one of a group of observers called by the prisoners to monitor their negotiations with the state. Soon after his arrival, he assumed the role of lawyer for the inmates. After several days of negotiations, governor Nelson Rockefeller, who cultivated an image of being tough on crime and political dissent and who refused requests from the inmates and prison management to appear in person, ordered an armed assault with weapons and ammunitions outlawed by the Geneva Conventions on the unarmed prisoners and hostages in the yard.

Police dropped tear gas and opened fire on the yard, and within six minutes numerous inmates and guards lay dead or dying. When control was regained, the enraged guards and state troopers engaged in "an orgy of brutality" (Inmates of Attica v. Rockefeller. Second circuit, 1971), torturing and brutalizing the prisoners for days.

Officials announced that inmates had murdered guards by slitting their throats. This was exposed as a lie after autopsies revealed that all but one guard, who was trampled to death, had been killed by law enforcement gunfire during the assault.

New York state spent five years prosecuting the prisoners while covering up the crimes of law enforcement during the assault and retaking. Eventually 62 inmates were indicted in what has been referred to as the darkest day in the history of New York state jurisprudence. Kunstler was one of the main lawyers defending the prisoners and remained committed to the Attica struggle until his death.

A class-action suit was brought against the state and prison by 1,280 men shot and brutalized during the attack in 1974; it was finally settled for 12 million dollars in 2000. In 2004, the families of the 10 guards who were murdered and shot also received 12 million dollars

» "The Law: A Year Ago at Attica." Time,Sept. 25, 1972.
» People & Events: Attica Prison Riot -- September 9-13, 1971. PBS: American Experience: Website for The Rockefellers.
» "Crime History -- Attica Prison Riot Begins, Ending with 39 Killed." The Washington Examiner, Sept. 9, 2009.
» Attica Revisited. Talking History.
The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica. New York, NY: Bantam, 1972.

Wounded Knee

The late 1960s saw the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a Native American activist organization founded to protect the rights of Native Nations and "ensure the fulfillment of treaties made with the United States."

AIM predominantly sought to confront violation of treaties with the United States guaranteeing sovereignty over the land of respective indigenous nations and the historic breach of human and constitutional rights that left Native Americans in dire poverty, with an unemployment level of 60 to 80 percent, with poor medical care and housing and limited educational opportunities.

In the early 1970s the movement undertook several protests, including a 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Conflicts had arisen in the Oglala Lakota community there between individuals supporting tradition and sovereignty and those with strong ties to the government Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which AIM wanted to reform.

At the time, the poverty-stricken reservation was headed by tribal chairman Richard "Dick" Wilson, a man protesters accused of corruption. Wilson had built up a militia called the Guardians of the Oglala Nation, who called themselves the GOONs. The GOONs terrorized many residents, and a number of beatings and murders went unresolved.

In an effort at reform, Lakota elders called on AIM for help. On February 27, 1973, AIM and local tribespeople announced their presence, by invitation, within the hamlet of Wounded Knee, site of the government slaughter of more than 200 Indians in 1890. They set up barricades and roadblocks.

The government responded by sending in marshals, BIA police and the FBI, who set up their own roadblocks, as did the GOONs. A military unit was engaged and flyovers were performed. Although most of the 71-day standoff was peaceful, some 100,000 rounds were fired and two Native Americans were killed and one federal marshal injured.

wounded knee kunstler jpgKunstler was called in by AIM members in early March; the government offered to allow the protesters to leave peacefully without risking arrest, although it was understood that indictments might be handed down later by a grand jury. Kunstler advised the AIM members to hold out, and AIM leader Russell Means burned the government's offer before television cameras.

The protesters ended the standoff on May 8, 1973, after receiving a letter from the Nixon administration promising a meeting between Oglala Lakota elders and White House representatives to discuss grievances. Individuals participating in the siege received a total of 185 indictments for alleged crimes committed during the occupation, although only a few were ultimately convicted. The first case to go to trial was that of AIM leaders Means and Dennis Banks. Kunstler, along with several other attorneys, defended Banks and Means. After a nine-month trial, Chief Judge Fred J. Nichols of the Federal District Court of South Dakota dismissed all charges on grounds of government misconduct. Among other things, Nichols found that the government had altered and fabricated evidence, committed illegal electronic surveillance, improperly engaged the military, violated court orders and lied to the court.

Kunstler was also the attorney for one of four AIM members accused of the 1975 murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during a day-long firefight in which a young AIM member was also shot and killed. Kunstler represented Darelle "Dino" Butler, who, along with Robert Robideau, was tried for the killings in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At the trial, Kunstler and other attorneys presented evidence that the shootings had occurred due to a warlike atmosphere on the reservation, where FBI agents were terrorizing residents in the wake of the Wounded Knee standoff in 1973. Kunstler argued, "There is virtually no evidence on how these agents died." Robideau and Butler were acquitted of all charges.

Charges against a third AIM member, Jimmy Eagle, were dropped, and a fourth, Leonard Peltier, was extradited from Canada to stand trial for the murders and subsequently convicted. Kunstler did not represent Peltier at trial, but spent years aiding in his appeals, which argued that the FBI had carried out a violent covert operation targeting the AIM and that the prosecution had hidden critical ballistics tests that showed that Peltier could not have been the shooter. Peltier is currently 35 years into serving a life sentence.

» American Indian Movement.
» United States v. Banks and Means (Wounded Knee). Center for Constitutional Rights.
» "Occupation of Wounded Knee Is Ended." The New York Times. May 9, 1973.
» Wounded Knee II, 30 Years Later. Democracy Now. May 9, 2003.
» Langum, David J. William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
» The Leonard Peltier Trial. Famous Trials.

Flag Burning as Protected First Amendment Speech

During the 1984 Republican Convention in Dallas, Texas, Gregory "Joey" Johnson participated in a protest against the policies of then-president Ronald Reagan as "Commander in Chief of U.S. Imperialism." Protesters marched through the streets to City Hall, where they doused an American flag with kerosene and lit it on fire. No one's safety was endangered, but several witnesses reported being offended by the flag burning and the chanting of slogans such as, "America, the red, white and blue, we spit on you."

Johnson was charged with "desecration of a venerated object," a violation of the Texas penal code. Represented at trial by attorneys from the ACLU, he was convicted, sentenced to a year in prison and fined two thousand dollars. Johnson called this "forced patriotism" and appealed his conviction. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned it, ruling that the state's argument that it was protecting a symbol of national unity did not outweigh protecting the First Amendment: "Recognizing that the right to differ is the centerpiece of our First Amendment freedoms, a government cannot mandate by fiat a feeling of unity in its citizens. Therefore that very same government cannot carve out a symbol of unity and prescribe a set of approved messages to be associated with that symbol."

Disturbing the Universe: Burning American Flag jpgKunstler became Johnson's attorney after Texas appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. He joined his client in mounting a national campaign, speaking at law schools, rallies and protests and in the national media.

In 1989, Kunstler argued Texas v. Johnson before the Supreme Court, which voted five to four for Johnson. Said Justice William Brennan, speaking for the majority, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."

The Supreme Court decision invalidated laws in 48 states that prohibited flag-burning.

Johnson's victory was followed by repeated but unsuccessful efforts to enact federal statutes and constitutional amendments against burning the American flag as a form of protest.

» Landmark Cases.
» Texas v. Johnson, Certiorari to the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas.
» Oyez. (audio of the actual Supreme Court argument)

Central Park Jogger Case

On April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old woman was brutally raped and beaten while jogging in New York's Central Park.

Five teenagers -- Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise -- all aged 14 to 16, all black or Latino, all from East Harlem, were convicted of the rape after four of the five confessed to it on videotape.


The teenagers pleaded not guilty, saying that they'd been coerced by police to make the confessions, taped on April 21, after they'd been awake for more than 48 hours. Despite no physical evidence linking the teenagers to the crime, they were found guilty and sentenced to five to 13 years in prison each. (Kunstler did not represent any of the teenagers at trial, but spent two years appealing Salaam's conviction.)

Another man, convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime in January 2002 just after the statute of limitations had run out and after the last of the five teenagers had finished serving his sentence. The DNA collected at the scene was found to match that of Reyes, corroborating his confession.

New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau recommended that the teenagers' convictions be thrown out. New York Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada complied on December 19, 2002.

The five exonerated men have filed a civil lawsuit against the city of New York, alleging malicious prosecution and wrongful conviction. The New York police department and Manhattan district attorney's office have denied any wrongdoing and there has been no settlement to date.


» "Central Park Revisited." New York. Oct. 21, 2002.
» "Law: True Confession of The Central Park Rapist." Time. Dec. 16, 2002.
» "Convictions and Charges Voided In '89 Central Park Jogger Attack." The New York Times. Dec. 20, 2002.
» "Cleared Defendants In Central Park Jogger Rape File Lawsuit." NY1 News. Dec. 8, 2003.

El Sayyid Nosair

On November 5, 1990, Rabbi Meir Kahane, a militant, anti-Arab Zionist and the founder of the Kach Party in Israel and the Jewish Defense League in the United States, was shot and killed after giving a speech at the Marriott hotel in New York City. After the shot was fired, El Sayyid Nosair fled the scene and jumped into a cab outside. The cab was pursued by Kahane supporters, and when it was stopped in traffic, Nosair jumped out and traded shots with a U.S. Postal Service police officer. Nosair was wounded, and police found a gun near his hand matching the type that had killed Kahane. A witness also said he had seen Nosair fire the shot.

Nosair jpgKunstler took the case. In William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America, author Langum quotes Kunstler saying that Muslims "are the most hated group in the country; the moment a Muslim is accused of a crime, the specter of terrorism is raised, and everyone panics."

William Greenbaum, the lead prosecutor in the case, argued that Nosair fired the shots as "a planned political assassination." In Nosair's defense, Kunstler pointed out that Greenbaum never provided any motivation for such an assassination. He claimed that the murder had been pinned unfairly on Nosair. Kunstler argued that the shot that wounded the postal officer was fired by a Kahane supporter and that Kahane's murder itself was the work of a dissident from within the Jewish Defense League. Kunstler's defense also highlighted the police department's messy investigative work, including improper fingerprint analysis of the murder weapon and the lack of a complete autopsy performed on Kahane. Nosair was acquitted of murder but convicted of assault, possession of an illegal firearm and shooting a U.S. Postal Service police officer. The judge in the case, State Supreme Court Justice Alvin Schlesinger, gave him the maximum sentence, seven and one-third to 22 years in prison.

While in jail, Nosair was indicted along with Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman for orchestrating the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The indictment linked the bombing with plans to blow up New York tunnels and buildings and Kahane's murder and accused 15 men of "seditious conspiracy." Nosair was convicted of participating in this conspiracy. He is serving a sentence of life plus 15 years in Colorado.


» "Judge Gives Maximum Term in Kahane Case." The New York Times. Jan. 30, 1992.
» Langum, David J. William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
» "U.S. Indicts Egyptian Cleric as Head of Group Plotting 'War of Urban Terrorism.'The New York Times. Aug. 26, 1993.