For 40 years, Leonard Weinglass has been the defence lawyer in some
of America's most spectacular trials, representing the Chicago Eight,
the kidnappers of Patty Hearst and the man who helped bring down
President Nixon. He tells Duncan Campbell why the current case of the
Cuban Five shows how politics is derailing the US justice system
Wednesday January 9, 2008
This month a series of billboards will start appearing in US cities
informing pass- ers-by about five prisoners serving up to life
sentences in US jails. While the Cuban Five, as they are known, are
heroes in their home country and in parts of Latin America, they are
virtually unknown in the land where they are incarcerated. Soon they
are due back in court and Leonard Weinglass, their lawyer, believes
the case should be as famous as any political trial in the US over
the past four decades.
Weinglass should know. In fact, if you wanted to understand American
politics over the past four decades, you could do worse than to study
the casebook of this quietly spoken New York-based lawyer whose task
it is to try and free them. From the Chicago Eight to Jane Fonda,
from Angela Davis to the kidnappers of Patty Hearst, from Daniel
Ellsberg to Amy Carter, Weinglass has represented the defendants in
many of the most spectacular real-life courtroom dramas.
He is in London to meet British parliamentarians and raise awareness
of the Cuban Five, a story that has hovered under the radar in the
US. The five young Cuban men, who had infiltrated anti-Castro groups
in Miami that were planning sabotage in Cuba, were convicted of
espionage offences in 2001. Weinglass believes they are victims of a
grave miscarriage of justice and that the courtroom acts as a
barometer of a country's political health.
It was the trial of the Chicago Eight, the anti-Vietnam war
protesters arrested in the wake of the riots at the Democratic
party's convention in 1968, that first propelled Weinglass into the
legal limelight. The defendants included Abbie "Steal This Book"
Hoffman; Tom Hayden, a political activist who would later become a
Democrat congressman; and Bobby Seale, who appeared in court manacled
and with his mouth taped shut. The trial is the subject of a
forthcoming Steven Spielberg film. A few years later, Weinglass found
him self defending Daniel Ellsberg, the man who, in 1971, leaked the
Pentagon papers on the hidden history of the Vietnam war, which were
instrumental in the downfall of President Nixon. He has kept in touch
with many of his old clients.
"Last summer, Dan Ellsberg and Tom Hayden and I were speaking at a
community east of Vancouver that was founded by a group of Russians
who had their way there paid by Tolstoy during the Tsar's period
because they had thrown down their weapons and burned them in a
ceremonial bonfire," says Weinglass. "During the Vietnam war, they
welcomed American war resisters and they are still helping those
[soldiers refusing to fight in the Iraq war] who are coming now."
What perplexes Weinglass is that his current case has had scant
attention in the American mainstream media. "There is very little
coverage except in the leftwing or Latin press. I was on Wolf Blitzer
on CNN about six months ago, and I received many calls afterwards
from people who were shocked to learn about it for the first time.
It's inexplicable. Here you have a case, the longest trial in the US
at the time it was heard, with a US admiral, the adviser to the
president, Cuban generals, all testifying in a criminal trial that
covered the 40-year history of US-Cuban relations and it received no press."
He draws parallels between the Cuban case and that of Ellsberg. "In
Dan's case, the court process had to examine the 40-year history
between the US and Vietnam, so both cases are the product of foreign
policy failures and responses to those failures, which is rare in
court proceedings. Most cases are two-dimensional - what happened,
who did it? In these cases you went into a third dimension - why?
That gives it political content."
The trial had started on the heels of the case involving Elian
Gonzalez, the shipwrecked boy who was eventually returned to his
father in Cuba. "There were 100,000 people in the street protesting
against Elian's return approximately three months before the case
began. There is great fear and intimidation in Miami. Some of those
called to serve on the jury said they thought they could be fair, but
they were afraid for their families if they reached a verdict that
was unacceptable to the Cuban exile community. A banker said he felt
he would lose his business. The jury foreman was asked about Cuba and
he said it was a 'communist dictatorship and I will be pleased when
it is removed'."
Weinglass drew up the trial brief for Angela Davis, the black
radical, when she stood trial for murder in 1972. She, unlike the
Cubans, was acquitted. "Angela's case involved a black woman, a
member of the Communist party, tried for the murder of a judge in a
rural Californian community, in front of an all-white jury. She was
defended by excellent African-American lawyers and a decision was
made correctly that her legal team would be all of colour, but I
wrote the trial brief. The issue was: could she be acquitted without
testifying? They were afraid that if she testified the prosecution
would get into a lot of her political associations which she would
not publicly reveal. So she had to run the risk of a life sentence in
order to keep private her political associations. She prevailed, I
believe, largely because the whole world was watching.
"In the Cuban Five case, there were demonstrations in front of the
courthouse, people dangling nooses, calling for the hanging of the
five, editorial comment in the local paper saying this was the first
step in getting Fidel Castro and urging the indictment of Castro in a
Noriega-type attack on Cuba. The environment was more hostile in the
case of the Cuban Five. Angela, I believe, was saved by the
international and domestic support network which the Five did not have."
So what has changed in the decades since the Chicago Eight, Ellsberg
and Davis were all cleared? "Society has become far more punitive and
the system reflects that. The UN general assembly considered a ban on
life sentences for juveniles - people under 18 - and the vote was 185
in favour of the ban with only the US voting against. That is because
we have 2,300 juveniles doing life, including some from 13 years old.
This generates no discussion in the US. In the 60s, a life sentence
would mean that after 24 years you would be eligible for parole, and
you would have to be released after 34. Under the Clinton
administration, they abolished parole. If you get life, you are in
prison until you die.
"When I argued the Chicago Eight appeal, the court set aside two days
for argument; when we argued the case of the Five, all five were
given a total of 15 minutes, so I had three minutes to argue my
client's life sentence. That is attributed to judicial efficiency
which, of course, curtails the rights of the accused. So the system
operates faster and more punitively, and there is no groundswell to
address this in either party. We now have distinguished liberal
professors, like Alan Dershowitz of Harvard, calling for the courts
to issue warrants for torture and an attorney-general who refuses to
acknowledge that water-boarding is torture. There can't even be a
robust debate in the US on an issue as fundamental as torture."
Why the change in climate? "I think it's a reaction to the 60s, to
what most people considered an overly permissive era, which was
followed by a sharp increase in crime, which was followed by a
vindictive reaction, which we are still undergoing. In the 60s there
were 700,000 people in prison and 600 on death row. Now there are 2m
in custody and 3,200 on death row." He also believes that verdicts
reflect public moods. "The Chicago Eight were right on the issues of
war and racism. Dan Ellsberg was right on the Vietnam war. Angela was
clearly innocent and was tried at the height of the black liberation
struggle in the US."
One of Weinglass's best-known cases was that of Emily and Bill Harris
for kidnapping Patty Hearst in 1974. They were convicted, but
Weinglass believes they had a fair trial. "It was a sensational
kidnapping. It had the largest ransom ever paid and her father had to
come up with several million dollars worth of food for the poor."
Remarkably, the Harrises were free within a decade. How come? "Let me
just say that they benefited from the influence of the Hearst family,
who didn't want their daughter to testify."
Weinglass's Wikipedia biography has apparently been written by a
malign rightwinger. It suggests, falsely, that he was an adviser to
the Hanoi government. "I think it's hilarious," he says. "I can't
imagine anyone believing it as an honest source." He did defend Jane
Fonda after she went to Hanoi and broadcast to the US pilots who were
bombing the city, asking them to consider the consequences of what
they were doing. There was a call to charge her with treason and the
House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed her to testify.
"I sat with a group of lawyers who felt we should file a lawsuit to
quash that, but after talking to Jane we decided to take a totally
different tack: she would publicly thank the committee for the
subpoena and say she was willing to testify. The strategy was
correct. The committee met and withdrew the subpoena. They were
afraid of having Jane there. They never charged her."
Another client was Amy Carter, daughter of the former president, who
was arrested in 1987 with 15 others for occupying a university
building which was used by the CIA for recruitment during the war
waged by the Contras against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The
students were charged with criminal trespass. "We used the defence of
justification and necessity which says, 'Yes, I did the crime, but it
should be excused because I did it to prevent a greater wrong.' A
conservative jury in Massachusetts acquitted, which was a wonderful victory."
Weinglass is also currently dealing with the case of Kurt Stand and
his wife, Theresa Squillacote, who were jailed a decade ago for
attempted espionage (for the former East Germany) and obtaining
national defence information "to be used to the injury of the United
States". The FBI bugged every room of the Stands' home and used what
they heard to brief a psychologist who would then train an undercover
agent to penetrate the family. "It's quite a story," says Weinglass.
"Most Americans would not believe that the FBI records bedroom
conversations and then brings in psychologists to train an undercover
agent to betray a family."
Each case, he says, has its "heartbreak and satisfaction". Now 74, he
sees no reason to stop. "The typical call I get is one that starts by
saying, 'You're the fifth attorney we've called.' Then I get interested".
The history of the Cuban Five
Three of the Cuban Five are serving life sentences, the others 19 and
15 years, after being convicted in a US federal court in Miami on
June 8 2001. They are Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio
Guerrero, Fernando González and René González. All were accused of
committing espionage. Their defence was that they were involved in
infi ltrating and monitoring Miami-based anti-Castro groups to
prevent terrorist attacks on Cuba. These organisations have mounted
various attacks on the island over the years; the Five claimed that
as many as 3,000 people have died as a result.
The seven-month trial began in November 2000 in a hostile atmosphere,
but motions from defence attorneys for a change of venue were denied.
In 2005, a three-judge panel of the circuit court of appeals
overturned the convictions and ordered a new trial outside Miami.
This decision was reversed by a 12-judge panel. Nine remaining issues
of appeal are before the three-judge panel and a decision is expected shortly.