December 21, 2010 -- The life and times of famous attorney William Kunstler are explored in this interesting documentary directed and produced by his two daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler, who admit to being baffled and dismayed by some of their late father's actions. It not only hits the high points of Kunstler's storied legal career, it provides some insight into the history of America going back some 50 years to some massive and turbulent civil rights and anti-war movements.
Kunstler is described as a fairly ordinary attorney in a small law practice with his brother after serving in World War II. He was a liberal Democrat and a member of the ACLU. Then, he got involved with the civil rights movement, defending some freedom riders in 1961. He thrived on fame, taking controversial criminal and civil cases related to the civil rights movement. His daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler, who also appear in the film, say they were proudest of their father for his defense of the Chicago Seven in 1969-72 in a criminal case involving protests at the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago. Another highlight in Kunstler's career was his successful defense in 1973-76 of members of the American Indian Movement in trials related to the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. He also negotiated with prisoners at the Attica Prison riot in 1971 and later defended an Attica prison inmate accused of killing a guard in the riot. He was also involved in the defense team for O.J. Simpson in his murder trial, the so-called “Trial of the Century.”
Emily and Sarah Kunstler said in the film they were bewildered when their father undertook the defense of five black youths arrested for rape and murder in the Central Park Jogger case in 1989. Most people, including the Kunstler sisters, assumed the men were guilty of the crime. They asked their father to drop the case. The five youths confessed and were found guilty. The convictions were later vacated when another man confessed to the crime and DNA evidence convicted him and acquitted the others. That caused the Kunstler sisters to reassess their father's defense of the young men. Kunstler also successfully defended a man accused of murdering a radical Jewish Rabbi. This earned Kunstler the enmity of the Jewish community. Daily protests were staged outside his office and the girls were afraid to go outside. Kunstler was hated and labelled a “self-hating Jew.”
Kunstler also successfully defended a black man who shot four police officers. This was one of the few times a black man was ever successfully defended on a charge of shooting police on the grounds of self defense in this country. It is proof of Kunstler's persuasive powers. Kunstler was despised by the police for this result. Kunstler also defended Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, accused in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, another extremely unpopular action. He also successfully defended a protester who was arrested for burning an American flag. The movie makes a case that Kunstler was a publicity seeker. He also apparently believed in the old bromide that “everyone deserves a defense.” Every lawyer says this, but many don't fully implement this policy. Maybe Kunstler did. The movie leaves it up to the viewer to decide. At Kunstler's funeral, he was praised by many who said he defended people no one else would. Certainly the number of people who came to his memorial service is a testament, at least in part, to Kunstler's long and controversial career as a lawyer-activist, defending members of minorities and unpopular causes, and changing the law and the country in the process. This film rates a B.
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