Film honors NYC defense attorney William Kunstler

AP News
Posted: Nov 12, 2009 7:53 PM

They grew up in a home like no other _ where bullets arrived in the mail and where their father went to the basement to open packages he feared could contain explosives.

That was life for the daughters of the late civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, whose clients ranged from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman to John Gotti. Now his daughters are telling their stories _ and bringing him back to life on film for a new generation.

The documentary, "William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe," by Emily and Sarah Kunstler, is being released at theaters in New York on Friday and Los Angeles this month.

The sisters made the 85-minute film to tell their father's story through the eyes of young girls who sometimes could not understand his representation of society's most despised.

On the playground, the girls weren't always sure how to answer the taunts of schoolmates who wanted to know why their father was representing villains accused of shooting at police officers or raping a Central Park jogger or committing terrorism.

"We were obsessed. We wanted them to be innocent. We didn't know how to fight those playground battles for him," Emily, 31, said during a recent interview.

Sarah, 33, agreed, citing the weeks when protesters gathered outside their home, once even breaking their home's front window. "You wonder why is this so important that it's worth doing this to our family," she said.

By his death in September 1995, Kunstler's booming baritone voice and unmanaged hair were expected in New York courthouses whenever the most unsavory of clients needed a lawyer willing to take up a seemingly lost cause. A surprising amount of the time, Kunstler ended up winning.

William Moses Kunstler was an ordinary New York City lawyer in the 1950s, living in the suburbs with a wife and two daughters.

His life turned dramatically when he traveled to the South in 1960 to join the civil rights movement as a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. The film portrays a man whose childhood home had black servants being transformed into a legal icon of civil rights struggles.

He became famous when he represented anti-war protesters arrested at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, a group of activists who became known as the Chicago 8. Before the trial was over, Kunstler's hair was long and he was sentenced to more than 40 months in prison for contempt of court for his courtroom behavior.

Kunstler wore his conviction like a badge and traveled the country making speeches, attracting scorn from law enforcement agencies.

As the documentary shows, Kunstler's reputation grew with each legal entanglement, such as when he tried to peacefully end a takeover of Attica Prison in 1971 by inmates. Or when in 1973 he represented Indians at Wounded Knee, S.D., who demanded that the U.S. government honor treaties with Indians.

By 1976, Kunstler had divorced and remarried, starting a second family with a fellow activist lawyer, Margaret Ratner Kunstler. Emily and Sarah were born soon afterward, two years apart.

Kunstler's world didn't make a lot of sense to small children, especially his own, not when he increasingly was representing people like mobsters, drug dealers and killers.

"Dad's clients gave us nightmares," Emily said in the film. "He told us that everyone deserves a lawyer but sometimes we didn't understand why that lawyer had to be our father."

Emily said she pleaded unsuccessfully with her father when she was 10 years old not to represent Yusef Salaam, a teenager accused in the gang rape of a woman in Central Park. Salaam was eventually exonerated, but only after he served his prison term.

After Kunstler's death, his daughters said they spent almost a decade without confronting the loss.

"The only way we knew how to deal with his absence was to not really talk about him, not remind ourselves of that gaping hole in our lives," Emily said. "It took 10 years for us to reinvite him and his image back into our lives."

They said Hurricane Katrina and the racial issues that arose as a large population of blacks seemed to be abandoned by their government inspired them to research their father's life.

The sisters watched hundreds of hours of videos of their father made by others and themselves as they were growing up.

"We're very lucky in that there was so much archival footage and our father's life was so well documented," Sarah said. "We got to have a relationship with him again, got to have a conversation."

Sarah chuckles as she recalls vowing as a child never to follow the path of her father. She graduated from Columbia Law School in 2004.

"Incrementally your parents creep into you," she said.

Her sister has a relaxed view now of their childhood. Their father never apologized for what he put them through.

"I almost feel like I owe him an apology," Emily said. "I didn't see the impact he was having on the world, the lives he was affecting. ... We begin to realize the ways we were uncomfortable as children really seem minuscule. Ultimately, Sarah and I are fine. Nothing horrible happened to us. Salaam spent his entire teenage and young adult life in prison."