Recalling ‘People’s Lawyer’ Leonard Weinglass

In many of the major social/political battles of the Twentieth Century, lawyer Leonard Weinglass defended activists facing government criminal charges, as a new book about his life recalls, writes Marjorie Cohn.

By Marjorie Cohn

Legendary people’s lawyer Leonard Weinglass defended the poor and disenfranchised who struggled for social justice in the great tradition of Clarence Darrow, Charles Garry, Ernest Goodman, William Kunstler, Carol Weiss King, Arthur Kinoy, Constance Baker Motley and Michael Ratner.

Attorney Leonard Weinglass


Weinglass is now immortalized in Len: A Lawyer in History, a valuable graphic historical work by cartoonist/writer Seth Tobocman. The book features some of Weinglass’ most significant cases, analyzing them in the historical context of the political movements in which they took place.

“I want to spend my time defending people who have committed their time to progressive change. That’s the criteria,” Weinglass said. “Now, that could be people in armed struggle, people in protest politics, people in confrontational politics, people in mass organizations, people in labor.” Weinglass’s calling, editor Michael Steven Smith noted in the book’s introduction, was defending people against “the machinery of the state.”

Weinglass, a longtime member of the National Lawyers Guild, was a brilliant attorney who empowered his clients. Unlike many lawyers, he understood that the case belongs to the client who must live with the consequences of the result. His clients had the final say about what strategy and tactics to employ. Weinglass took cases other lawyers would not, sometimes for no fee.

“[Weinglass] wasn’t drawn to making money. He was drawn to defending justice,” said Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the Pentagon Papers helped end the Vietnam War. “He felt in many cases he was representing one person standing against the state. He was on the side of the underdog. He was also very shrewd in his judgment of juries,” Ellsberg added.

A former military analyst and Marine who served in Vietnam, Ellsberg worked at the Rand Corp. and the Pentagon. He risked decades in prison to release 7,000 top-secret documents to The New York Times and other newspapers in 1971. The Pentagon Papers demonstrated how five presidents consistently lied to the American people about the Vietnam War that was killing thousands of Americans and millions of Indochinese.

Ellsberg’s courageous acts led directly to the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, called Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America” who “had to be stopped at all costs.” But Ellsberg wasn’t stopped. Facing 115 years in prison on espionage and conspiracy charges, he fought back.

Weinglass represented Ellsberg and Tony Russo, who helped Ellsberg copy the Pentagon Papers. The case was ultimately dismissed due to egregious misconduct by the Nixon administration. Ellsberg’s story was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film, “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” Edward Snowden told Ellsberg that the film strengthened his resolve to release the National Security Agency documents.

The Chicago Eight

Another of Weinglass’ cases highlighted in Tobocman’s book is the Chicago Eight trial. Tens of thousands of people protested the Vietnam War outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In the face of widespread police brutality captured on television, Nixon charged eight people with the federal offense of crossing state lines to incite a riot.

A poster about the Chicago Eight case.

Weinglass and Kuntsler represented seven of the defendants. Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, denied the right to represent himself when his attorney, Charles Garry, was unable to appear, was bound and gagged by the ruthless judge Julius Hoffman.

The seven were Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Lee Weiner and John Froines. “Judge Hoffman was not impartial, but an activist seeking combat. He took things personally and turned the court into an armed camp,” Tobocman wrote. The judge refused to allow the defense to call police experts to testify about police overreaction or ask potential jurors whether pretrial publicity would affect them.

Froines and Weiner were acquitted, but the jury convicted Hayden, Hoffman, Rubin, Davis and Dellinger. Weinglass succeeded in getting the appellate court to reverse their convictions. Seale, who was hit with a four-year sentence for contempt of court, was eventually released early, too.

Weinglass’s final case was the appeal of the convictions of the Cuban Five. For more than 40 years, anti-Cuba terrorist organizations based in Miami had engaged in countless terrorist activities against Cuba and anyone who advocated the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Terrorist groups, including Alpha 66, Omega 7, Comandos F4, Cuban American National Foundation, Independent and Democratic Cuba, and Brothers to the Rescue, operated with impunity in the United States.

Five Cuban men — Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labanino, René González and Fernando González—traveled from Cuba to the United States in the 1990s to gather information about terrorist plots against Cuba. The Cuban Five peacefully infiltrated these organizations. They then turned over the results of their investigation to the FBI.

But instead of working to combat terrorist plots in the United States against Cuba, the U.S. government arrested the Five and charged them with conspiracy to commit espionage and conspiracy to commit murder. They were convicted in a Miami court in 2000. Hernandez, Guerrero and Labanino received life sentences, with Fernando Gonzalez sentenced to 19 years in prison and Rene Gonzalez 15 years.

“Conspiracy has always been the charge used by the prosecution in political cases,” Weinglass said. “In the case of the Five, the Miami jury was asked to find that there was an agreement to commit espionage. The government never had to prove that espionage actually happened. It could not have proven that espionage occurred. None of the Five sought or possessed any top secret information or U.S. national defense secrets,” Weinglass added.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned their convictions in 2005, ruling that the Five could not get a fair trial in Miami due to pervasive anti-Cuba sentiment there. Nevertheless, the 11th Circuit, sitting en banc, upheld the convictions.

But, Weinglass stated, “It is inexplicable that the longest trial in the United States at the time it occurred, hearing scores of witnesses, including three retired generals and a retired admiral, as well as the president’s adviser on Cuban affairs (all called by the defense) and a leading military expert from Cuba, all the while considering the dramatic and explosive 40-year history of U.S.-Cuba relations, did not qualify for any media attention outside of Miami.”

A Battle with Cancer

Weinglass was in Cuba, working on the case, when he was diagnosed with cancer. He continued to work for the freedom of the Five until his death in March 2011. Two of the Five were released after long prison sentences. The remaining three were freed as part of the historic agreement between Cuban President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama in December 2014.

On a visit to Cuba in 2015, Guerrero told me he was overwhelmed with sadness at Weinglass’s death. “He was my brother,” Guerrero said.

Weinglass’s close friend Susan Schnall said, “His personal, political and professional life combined to be an inspiration to all who knew him.” She described Weinglass as “meticulous, tireless, dedicated and brilliant when defending his clients. Even as he got older,” she added, “he got reinvigorated and refreshed after spending 16-hour days pouring through boxes and boxes of trial files on behalf of his clients.”

In the spring of 2010, Weinglass wrote to her, “Having accomplished something is really all I need to work past exhaustion.”

Tobocman’s unique book is required reading for all who seek to learn about the remarkable legal career of Leonard Weinglass. It also provides a valuable history lesson of people’s struggles that may inspire a new generation of political activists as they resist Donald Trump’s mean-spirited agenda.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former criminal defense attorney, past president of the National Lawyers Guild and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. [This article originally appeared at Truthdig at
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7 comments for “Recalling ‘People’s Lawyer’ Leonard Weinglass

  1. Zachary Smith
    January 30, 2017 at 21:38

    This fellow seemed to be almost too good to be true, so I made a search of his name. Considering that I couldn’t find anything at all ‘bad’ about him, he most probably is worthy of being remembered and honored.

    Regarding that “Cuban Five” case, the news surely was kept muted, for I’d never heard of it before. From what I can tell after reading about it now, it seems to have turned on how the right of the US Government to protect people who commit terrorism against Cuba shall not be infringed.

  2. Bill Bodden
    January 30, 2017 at 21:28

    Thank you Marjorie Cohn for reminding us of America at its finest.

  3. Josh Stern
    January 30, 2017 at 16:58

    A cool video of Mark Lane out-lawyering/debating William F. Buckley on the latter’s TV show in 1966: Besides having good entertainment value, this video is historically interesting for showing both the kind of things that were on TV back then, and for showing how much info about the case was still out of view for one of the most informed JFK researchers at that time.

  4. evelync
    January 30, 2017 at 16:57

    Thank you, Marjorie Cohn. A remarkable, courageous hero. So sad to learn of his death while fighting for the Cuban Five. I remember reading about the sorry dispensing of U.S. justice on behalf of these people whose only mistake was to trust their fate to the noble cause of whistleblowing which the FBI disrespected and instead betrayed.
    Politics seems to trump justice here most of the time here.
    When will we ever learn?

  5. Dr. Ip
    January 30, 2017 at 15:38

    Leonard Weinglass is a person worthy of all the laudatory language in this article.

    Unfortunately, as this new regime goes forward, there will be an increase in judges like judge Julius Hoffman and more “egregious misconduct” than the Nixon administration would have ever thought it could engage in with impunity, and all without repercussions for the leadership (Führerschaft Pl.: die Führerschaften).

    Dress up warm — it will be a long cold winter. Protect your communications, use Signal ( or Threema ( and remain anonymous. All dictatorial regimes troll social media in order to get the names and faces of those who oppose them.

    You can learn from the right or learn from the left, but learn about Leaderless Resistance:

    “Leaderless resistance, or phantom cell structure, is a social resistance strategy in which small, independent groups (covert cells), including individuals (a solo cell called a “Lone Wolf”), challenge an established institution such as a law, economic system, social order, government, etc. Leaderless resistance can encompass anything from non-violent protest and civil disobedience to vandalism, terrorism and other violent activity. Leaderless cells lack bidirectional, vertical command links and operate without hierarchical command. While it lacks a central command, the concept includes a common goal between the individual actor and the group or social movement from which the ideology was learned.

    Given the simplicity of the strategy, as well as the fact that it is difficult to stamp out, leaderless resistance has been employed by a wide range of movements, including animal-liberation, radical environmentalist, anti-abortion activist, military invasion resistance, colonialism resistance, terrorist, and hate groups.” (

    A weather-vane moment will be when SNL is shut down and Bill Maher is trundled off to jail. In Germany, it was the artists, especially the biting political cabaret artists who were chased off the stage first.

    Oh, and by-the-way, it’s not the Russians or any other national or religious group that is behind this neo-fascist upsurge. It is your common-garden group of thugs and criminals who have grabbed the opportunity afforded them by a system that has been corrupted and is (was) rotten at its core.

    I wish you the best of luck in your struggle! You will need it.

    • Zachary Smith
      January 30, 2017 at 22:10

      Protect your communications…

      Alert people who have lived with Bush the Dumber and Obama the Nobel Peace guy are already doing what they can in this regard.

      Leaderless resistance might slow up the spooks a bit, but in the long term I’d predict they will be infiltrated just like any other schemes.

      • Dr. Ip
        February 1, 2017 at 06:54

        That is rather defeatist of you Mr. Smith. Defeatism also being a tactic used by the authoritarians in power.

        Do the calculations: Assume that across the nation there are 50,000 leaderless cells formed of 3 persons per cell. That’s 150,000 people, none of them connected to each other by a leadership, just by an idea. So, if one wants to infiltrate these cells, assuming that they will take on a fourth member, then one would need 50,000 operatives. And even if you (as the government) initiate the cells and gather 2 more members to join you, then that’s still 50,000 operatives needed. On a scale as small as 50,000 that seems rather unfeasible. So imagine if the number of cells is a million. Logistically impossible to break the structure I’m afraid, unless of course mass extermination of “enemies” on the basis of suspicion is initiated, like with Mr. Stalin or Chairman Mao or our Western culture model citizen Adolf Hitler, this is not to mention the numerous previous exterminations initiated by religions and rulers from the past. I’m sure a little research on the subject will produce a rich trove of results.

        Also, Mr. Smith, your reference to leaderless resistance as a “scheme” is a poor choice of language. It’s not a scheme, it’s a strategy with a structure that has been successfully implemented in many places at many times.

        Don’t think in terms of defeat. Learn more about how you can be a better you and how the enemy can be defeated. Perhaps also read The Art of War by Sun Tzu:


        So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles.
        If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
        If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

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