Leonard Weinglass, defender of civil rights, dies

All lovers of human and civil rights were saddened last week to hear of the passing of the outstanding attorney Leonard Weinglass,  who succumbed to pancreatic cancer on March 23.

Born in New York in 1933, Weinglass earned a law degree from Yale University in 1958, and from that time until shortly before his death, dedicated all his efforts to the defense of people who were being persecuted for their political views and actions.

After military service, he joined the famous civil and constitutional rights law firm of Rabinowitz and Boudin in New York. During the protests against the Vietnam War, Weinglass participated, along with another legal giant, the late William Kunstler, in the defense of the “Chicago 8”, who were arraigned by the Nixon administration for having organized massive protests against the war, especially on the occasion of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

Although what happened in Chicago was really a “police riot”, the eight activists were prosecuted for conspiracy. The defendants and their legal counsel, including Weinglass, had to deal with one of the most arrogant and prejudiced judges imaginable, the late Julius Hoffman, who among other arbitrary acts separated the one African-American defendant, Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers, from the other seven and created a spectacle to amaze the world by having him bound and gagged throughout his trial. The competent and passionately committed way in which Weinglass, Kunstler and their colleagues conducted the defense would have been enough to ensure their everlasting glory, but this was only the beginning.

Weinglass participated in many other cases with strong civil liberties dimensions, including the trial of the Communist Party’s Angela Davis in 1973, in which the then governor of California, Ronald Reagan, played the role that Nixon played with the Chicago 8, of tilting the scale in favor of injustice by his inflammatory public statements.

Weinglass also helped to defend Daniel Ellsberg in the “Pentagon Papers” case. He was involved in several other high profile cases, including those of other war resisters, of fighters for the independence of Puerto Rico, and of Mumia Abu Jamal.

At the time of his death, he had been working since 2002 on the case of the Cuban Five  during its appeals phase. These are five Cuban patriots who are serving outrageous jail sentences in U.S. federal prisons because they came to the United States to monitor the actions of extremist right wing exile groups in South Florida, actions which included plans for terrorist attacks against Cuba.

Weinglass threw himself into this work, not confining himself to the technical legal aspect but turning himself into a major public advocate for the prisoners.

In the legal process of their appeals, there were frequent setbacks, but Weinglass was never daunted, and his spirit inspired us to continue also.

He was still working on a habeas corpus-based appeal for two of the five, Gerardo Hernandez and Antonio Guerrero, who have been given life sentences based on trumped up charges of “murder” for the shooting down of two Cuban exile airplanes in 1996, an act with which they had nothing to do.

Ironically, one of the main terrorists whose associates the Five were monitoring, Luis Posada Carriles, is now on trial in a federal courtroom in El Paso, Texas, for perjury and immigration infractions.

One of the five, Gerardo Hernandez, who is confined in the federal prison at Victorville, California, expressed the feelings of many when he wrote, quoting Cuban patriot Jose Marti

“Death is not real when one’s life’s work is done well.”

 Amen to that. Leonard Weinglass, ¡Presente!

Photo: Leonard Weinglass speaks with reporters at a Miami press conference on the Cuban Five case.





Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.