Our thanks to Susan and Kevin for donating this chapter, which was written for, but ultimately cut from, the Law & Order Unofficial Companion. We appreciate it!
"I've got to catch a plane for Minneapolis," explained William Kunstler in early 1995, his trademark husky voice sounding a bit out of breath on the phone. Less than a year before his death at age seventy-five, the defense attorney was Minnesota-bound to represent Qubilah Shabazz, daughter of the late Malcolm X, who was accused of plotting to assassinate Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Why would Kunstler, one of America's most in-demand and progressive lawyers, stop to chat about his 1994 appearance on Law & Order? Perhaps it's because he had show business in his blood. "I was asked if I'd like to audition," he replied, when asked about his network television debut. "I said okay because I love acting. I've played lawyers and judges in movies like The Doors and Malcolm X. I've been in lots of documentaries but never on a TV program before."
Kunstler believed that Law & Order's producers may have extended the invitation because "to put it cold-bloodedly, they figured it could help the show. They really promoted the fact that I was going to be on."
There can be little doubt as to why they wanted him to appear on that particular Season Five episode. "White Rabbit," the story of a sixties radical living underground for two decades, is loosely based on the real-life saga of Katherine Ann Powers, a fugitive from justice who turned herself in after more than twenty years in hiding.
But Kunstler's foray into primetime may itself be worthy of dramatization. "My character originally had a different name. Then they found out that I had been involved in the actual Powers case. I represented her co-defendant in an attempt to set aside his conviction."
With this verisimilitude in mind, Kunstler was asked to portray himself. And that's when art and life began a pas de deux of amusing synchronicity. "I tell ya," Kunstler began, "when I got there for the first run-through, I was astounded by the connections. Sam Waterston appeared with me in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine around 1972. The director of the episode [Steven Robman] had been in the Peace Corps in Senegal with my daughter and son-in-law back in 1966. One of the extras was the wife of Ring Lardner, Jr., who I defended in the Hollywood Ten case in the late 1940s. And Gary Dawson, the guy playing the court clerk, was my other daughter's biology teacher at the United Nations International School. I began to like being there more and more."
So it was a thoroughly fabulous experience, right? Wrong. "I didn't think what I did was particularly good politics," Kunstler said. "I would never do what they had me do in the show: encourage my client to reveal who procured the guns, which prompts another defendant to testify against her. I rationalized that this was just a fictional setting."
To help ease his conscience, Kunstler wanted the writers, Ed Zuckerman and Morgan Gendel, to include dialogue that would allow him to espouse his own views. "So they put in another scene that had me confront Adam Schiff at the elevator. He says something like, 'Why don't you join us? I spend every waking hour prosecuting criminals to protect the good citizens of this city.' And I say, 'Adam, how many hours do you spend prosecuting thieving corporations or white cops who kill blacks, instead of idealistic young people like my client?' Eventually, the whole scene was cut."
There is evidence that while Kunstler's appearance may not have been good politics, it certainly was good law. The script called for him to upset the prosecution's case: He brings them a motion to surpress because, he had represented her when the defendant [Susan Forrest, played by Mary-Joan Negro] was picked up after the 1971 robbery. Therefore, she could not be asked to waive her right to an attorney, except in his presence, even after twenty-three years.
In the episode, Kunstler then asks if the DAs have read People v. West and, with that, he brandishes a brief. Although viewers would never have known the difference, he was not content to use a fake document. "I wrote the whole motion out for them and put it in the requisite blue binder. I just went home and banged it out on my computer. I created the prop."
That sequence prompted yet another bit of synchronicity. "When I was arguing a case in Albany recently, I bumped into the real lawyers who represented West in People v. West. They had seen the show and thanked me for mentioning their case."
While objecting to Law & Order's consistently pro-prosecution slant -- "They're always the heroes! Sometimes, they should show the sneakiness that goes on." -- Kunstler said he wouldn't rule out a future guest spot, a return engagement that was never to happen.
"If I did it again," he speculated, "I'd be a little more attuned to the politics. If it wasn't under my own name, it wouldn't bother me so much. The National Lawyers Guild criticized me severely for that. They said it was something a progressive lawyer should never do."