activist defense

on the intersection of activism and legal systems

Category: attorneys who represent activists

attorney for students who were shot at kent state dies in new york

On May 4, 1970, after a weekend of student rallies against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia — an R.O.T.C. building was set afire during the protests — National Guardsmen called to the campus by Gov. James A. Rhodes shot into a crowd of demonstrators, killing four students and wounding nine others.

This is an excerpt from today’s New York Times obituary for Joseph Kelner, who was hired by the mother of one of the students who died at Kent State. Kelner became chief counsel for the students who were shot (or their family members) in a lawsuit against 29 defendants: Governor Rhodes, Robert White (the president of Kent State at the time of the incident), and 27 National Guardsmen. The case went to trial in 1975 and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants.

Yet an appellate court reversed the verdict. Ohio officials subsequently offered $675,000 to settle the case. Although Kelner advised the plaintiffs against settling for that amount, they decided to accept the offer.

In 1980, Kelner wrote that the Kent State shootings resulted in a “monumental cover-up” by the government. Previously, Kelner had written the following in response to a New York Times Op-Ed defending the National Guardsmen:

We, the older generation, have much to answer for. … We were too permissive of our own government. We stood by passively while our elected officials inched us into the bottomless pit of Vietnam. While our land, water and air were polluted and fouled for decades by profit-hungry industry, we were reticent and compliant, each of us devoting our energies to the pursuit of happiness and material gain… The college kids simply cannot see us spending hundreds of billions on Vietnams and ABMs while our cities rot and people are hungry. They see our priorities aborted and our principles perverted to favor a military-industrial complex. So they protest.

marie mason’s attorney sues the department of justice for refusing to release records

Susan Tipograph, who represents incarcerated activist Marie Mason, filed a lawsuit last week against the Department of Justice (DOJ). She’s seeking access to documents related to Mason for the time period of January 26, 1962 to November 7, 2011. On December 22, 2011, Tipograph sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for such documents to the FBI – an agency of the DOJ – with a privacy waiver signed by Mason authorizing disclosure of the documents.

Mason had accepted a non-cooperating plea bargain in September 2008 related to the role she played in damaging property, specifically logging equipment and a university office used for research on genetically modified organisms. Although neither action injured anyone, she was sentenced in February 2009 to just under 22 years in federal prison. After spending nearly a month in segregation at the Federal Corrections Unit in Waseca, Minnesota, she was reclassified and transferred to a “control-management”-type prison unit in Carswell, Texas.

On March 22, 2012, the FBI informed Tipograph that the documents she requested were located in a file that was exempt from disclosure. Approximately one month later, Tipograph unsuccessfully appealed. Her lawsuit, in which she is represented by attorney Jeff Light, states that the FBI has invoked the same exemption in response to other FOIA requests regarding activists or journalists (e.g., Josh Harper and Will Potter), claiming they can’t disclose the documents because they conveniently placed them in an exempt file.

happy birthday to former movement lawyer lynne stewart

Thirty-five years ago, Lynne Stewart was admitted as an attorney in New York. During her career, she represented activists such as David Gilbert, after the 1981 Brink’s armored-car robbery in Rockland County. In June, a panel of federal judges upheld her 10-year prison sentence for “providing aid to terrorism,” because she allegedly shared statements from Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, her client in a terrorism case, with his followers (via a press release).

As in Tim DeChristopher’s case, the judge who sentenced Stewart in 2010 cited some of her public statements, including a comment that she could serve her original sentence of 28 months “standing on my head.” The three-judge panel reviewing her 10-year sentence decided that consideration of her public statements did not violate her First Amendment rights. Yet Stewart shouldn’t be punished for her beliefs or public comments, the contents of which – in the words of a Los Angeles Times editorial in March – “don’t justify a quadrupling of her sentence.”

Today is Stewart’s birthday. You can send her birthday wishes by writing her at the following address:

Lynne Stewart #53504-054
Federal Medical Center, Carswell
P.O. Box 27137
Fort Worth, TX 76127

attorney who defended shoe-throwing iraqi journalist still receives threats for taking on sensitive cases

The Iraqi journalist who threw both of his shoes at former president George W. Bush – “with widely admired aim” – has apparently been embraced around the Arab world. Yet one of the members of his defense team still receives threats for taking on sensitive cases. The attorney, Thair al-Qassim, has also been kidnapped, forced to pay a $40,000 ransom when his son was kidnapped and severely beaten, and has survived hand grenade attacks due to the cases on which he works. (In his words, “I defend Sunnis against Shi’ites or Shi’ites against Sunnis.”)

Muntader al-Zaidi served nine months in prison for the shoe-throwing incident. Before his trial, he was beaten and tortured while in custody, resulting in a broken arm, internal bleeding, and broken ribs. His family received threatening calls. Upon his release, he had this to say:

It humiliated me to see my country humiliated; and to see my Baghdad burned, my people killed. Thousands of tragic pictures remained in my head, pushing me towards the path of confrontation. … I travelled through my burning land and saw with my own eyes the pain of the victims, and heard with my own ears the screams of the orphans and the bereaved.

More than 100 lawyers from across the region offered to represent Zaidi free of charge after the incident, including one who had represented Saddam Hussein. Once on the defense team, however, Qassim received a phone call from someone telling him to abandon the case or he or his family would be killed. Indeed, many Iraqi attorneys receive constant threats due to the cases they take on, but Qassim – unlike some of the other attorneys who have been threatened – has not given up his practice.

judge denies freedom of information act request by attorney with leonard peltier’s defense team

A federal judge last Friday refused a request by Michael Kuzma, an attorney with Leonard Peltier’s defense team, to review more than 900 pages of FBI documents related to Frank Blackhorse. Blackhorse was among the roughly 24 American Indian Movement members or supporters the FBI identified as having participated, on June 26, 1975, in a fatal shootout with two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. More than seven months later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested Peltier, Blackhorse, and Ronald Blackman approximately 160 miles east of Edmonton, Alberta.

After Peltier’s arrest and extradition to the U.S., he was convicted – following an unfair trial in 1977 – of killing both FBI agents during the June 1975 firefight. (Bob Robideau and Dino Butler were tried for the same crime and acquitted, having been allowed to present a political defense, while Peltier was fighting extradition.) Blackhorse faced no extradition effort, even though he was apparently sought for questioning as to the shootout and under indictment for non-fatally shooting a federal agent at Wounded Knee during the 71-day occupation in 1973. As a result, Kuzma suspects Blackhorse may have provided information to law enforcement officials.

Whether or not Kuzma’s suspicion is correct, the judge’s denial of his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request is troublesome. Such requests are one of a limited range of options for activists or their attorneys to attempt to discover or verify FBI misdeeds. They have been used, for example, in the successful cases following the false prosecution of Geronimo Pratt and the police assassination of Fred Hampton.

Indeed, after a FOIA suit in 1981, Peltier’s defense team received roughly 12,000 pages of documents, including exculpatory material not provided to Peltier before or during his trial. Due to the judge’s decision on Friday, Kuzma has been forced to file new FOIA requests, which can languish for years before the government might have to produce anything. According to a Buffalo News article in February, the FOIA request on which the judge ruled last Friday “dates back to 2004 and is the latest in a series of court actions designed to pry loose secret government documents.”