Leonard Weinglass was a modern-day Clarence Darrow, an attorney who defended people for their politics not their alleged crimes, friends said.
His clients included Black Panthers, radicals, a cop-killer who sparked crusades against the death penalty, the Chicago Seven in the 1960s and the so-called Cuban Five in recent years.
Weinglass died Wednesday in New York City. He was 77 and had pancreatic cancer.
"I always considered Lenny the modern-day Clarence Darrow," said Michael Krinsky, a partner at Rabinowittz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky and Lieberman, where Weinglass worked. "He was a lawyer who devoted himself to defending people, usually for political reasons. I think one of the reasons he was so effective with juries is they saw his decency and sincerity."
In 1968, Weinglass was part of the defense team representing the Chicago Seven, accused of various crimes stemming from violence at the Democratic National Convention.
"I thought then that Len was the best trial attorney I ever met," said Tom Hayden, one of the defendants. "We roomed together during the trial and he taught me to be his sort-of assistant counsel. I think everybody in the courtroom came to realize what an extraordinary lawyer he was."
Some of the defendants were convicted of crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot, but an appeals court later reversed the convictions. The Justice Department never retried the case.
Later, Weinglass helped defend Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, who were charged with leaking the Pentagon Papers. Criminal charges against the two, who copied and disseminated the classified documents about the U.S. role in the Vietnam War, were eventually dismissed.
Ellsberg said he owed his life to Weinglass.
"He wasn't drawn to making money. He was drawn to defending justice," Ellsberg said. "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."
Weinglass was a 1958 graduate of Yale Law School and served as a U.S. Air Force captain with the judge advocate's office from 1959 to 1961. He opened a law office in Newark, N.J., in the 1960s, Krinsky said, and soon was representing defendants in civil rights cases.
"It was lonely work, it was dangerous work, but he was making a very vital contribution to the civil rights struggles of the late `60s," Krinsky said. "It was the sort of dedicated, selfless work that characterized his career."
Other high-profile defendants included Angela Davis, a former Black Panthers member acquitted of murder and kidnapping charges in California in 1972.
Another client, Kathy Boudin, was a member of the Weather Underground who was charged with murder during a 1981 robbery of an armored truck in New York. She was convicted for her role in the holdup and was paroled in 2003.
He also worked on the ongoing death row appeals of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther convicted in the slaying of a Philadelphia police officer.
In recent years, he took part in the Cuban Five case, where defendants were accused in Florida of spying for the Cuba.
Hayden said of his friend: "He exemplified the best qualities of a Jewish upbringing; he questioned everything. He was a funny man, a man of wisdom and passion who would throw himself into deeply unpopular causes because he believed in human rights."
Friends said he also was beloved beyond the courtroom.
The chance to have dinner with Weinglass, self-described radical Debbie Smith said Thursday, was an opportunity to create a memory for a lifetime.
"He was a wonderful storyteller who lived an interesting and dedicated life," she said.
"He had wonderful observations about life," Smith said. "He was a wonderful gardener and had a huge collection of tree and plant catalogs. He had a beautiful place in the Catskills and lived in a teepee up there for a couple of years."
A colleague, Ron Kuby, described him as a "lovely, gentle, caring man who lived his entire life on the left and never made a single enemy."
Weinglass, who was divorced, had no children. He is survived by two sisters, one brother and several nieces and nephews. A private funeral will be held, followed by a public memorial this spring.