Leonanrd Weinglass
Leonard Weinglass
From September 24, 1969, to February 18, 1970, Leonard Weinglass sat alongside William Kunstler in a Chicago courtroom as they defended the Chicago Seven, the men accused of disrupting the Democratic Convention in 1968. A more flamboyant attorney, Kunstler would emerge from the trial nearly as notorious as the defendants. But Weinglass, who died last week in New York City at the age of 77, was (as one site devoted to the trial puts it) the real “workhorse” of the team. “I would say he was the best courtroom lawyer I’ve known in my lifetime, and I’ve known a lot of them,” Tom Hayden, one of the seven defendants, told the New York Times last week.

The trial’s bête noire was Judge Julius Hoffman, who became the frequent butt of the defendants’ ridicule, insults, and other antics. (Hoffman ordered an eighth defendant, Bobby Seale, bound and gagged after he refused to remain quiet in court; Seale’s case was ultimately separated from the other seven defendants.) At trial’s end, the defendants were acquitted of the more serious conspiracy charges, though five of them were convicted of crossing state lines to incite a riot. But Judge Hoffman, who characterized the trial as a “circus,” appeared to have the last laugh when he handed down stiff sentences for contempt of court to the seven defendants and their two attorneys. Kunstler got the toughest sentence—a little over four years in prison—while Weinglass got one year, eight months, one week, and two days.

Forty years later, the transcripts documenting Weinglass’s alleged transgressions seem rather tame, though maybe the passage of time has diluted some of the sting of the raucous courtroom proceedings. On several occasions, Weinglass, who received 14 contempt charges, continued to argue a point after the judge told him to desist. (“You must learn—you mustn’t keep on arguing after I rule,” Hoffman lectured Weinglass on January 17th. “. . . That is good trial practice, and I have tried to make you understand it, but I haven’t been able to.”) Weinglass was also charged with questioning the judge’s ethics (“The door in this courtroom seems to swing in one direction,” said Weinglass on October 30th, implying that Hoffman favored the prosecution) or arguing (January 13th) that “the substance of a legal argument has been compromised by your Honor’s insistence of pure form.”

Leonanrd Weinglass with Jerry Rubin, one of the Chicago Seven
Weinglass, left, with Jerry Rubin, one of the Chicago Seven in February 1970.
Weinglass’s longest single sentence came for a January 24th incident when he continued to ignore the judge’s repeated warnings not to mention the name of the civil-rights activist Ralph Abernathy. “I just want the record to show that Reverend Abernathy was an officer of the National Mobilization,” Weinglass said in his final retort.

“Oh, Mr. Weinglass,” Hoffman replied. “Mr. Weinglass. I am sorry”—though the judge’s sardonic regret did not stop him from handing Weinglass a five-month sentence for the exchange. (On other occasions, Judge Hoffman had trouble remembering—or, perhaps, took delight in pretending to forget—the lawyer’s name, calling him Weinstein, Steinglass, or Glassberg.)

Pending appeal, Weinglass and Kunstler were not immediately whisked away to jail—though on February 28th, the Chicago Tribune suggested that might be the best place for them. “Their peregrinations, incitements, and continuing attacks on the law and its administration indicate no interest in working on appeals but a determination to keep up a running war against our institutions,” the paper editorialized. “In the circumstances, Judge Hoffman would be justified in revoking the stay of sentence and putting them in jail, for their conduct is a continuation of the contempt for which they were sentenced.”

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit disagreed. On November 21, 1972, it not only reversed the convictions of the Chicago Seven, but it also dismissed the contempt charges against the defendants and their lawyers. It ruled that Hoffman had made “several hundred” prejudicial remarks harmful to the defense, many of them in front of the jury. “[W]e are unable to approve the trial in this case as fulfilling the standards of our system of justice,” the court declared, later adding that “[Hoffman’s] deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense is evident in the record from the very beginning. . . . It does appear . . . the judge was more likely to exercise his discretion against the defense than against the government.”

Weinglass would go on to defend Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case; Bill and Emily Harris of the Symbionese Liberation Army for their kidnapping of the heiress Patty Hearst; the activist and educator Angela Davis for her alleged involvement in the 1970 killing of a California judge; and Amy Carter, the daughter of President Jimmy Carter, on trespassing and disorderly conduct charges related to a 1986 protest. One of Carter’s codefendants was Abbie Hoffman, a member of the Chicago Seven.

Judge Hoffman died in 1983 and Kunstler in 1995. Thomas Aquinas Foran, the lead prosecutor in the Chicago Seven case, died in 2000. With Weinglass’s death, only five of the principals from the trial, all of them defendants, remain alive: Hayden, Seale, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner.


Photography: Chicago Tribune