William Kuntsler: The Defense Cannot Rest
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“It helps to see all [these events] together and to draw connections between those movements,” says Emily Kunstler. “At the very least, our father’s life is a great storytelling vehicle for these major moments in American social history of the last 60 years. He moved in and out of these worlds.”
After setting the stage with William Kunstler’s glory days, the film introduces a new element: doubt.
When the great lawyer began to take on clients with especially unsavory baggage, his daughters started to question his judgment and push back. They chafed particularly at his decision to defend Larry Davis, who shot six police officers; Yusef Salaam, one of the youths accused (and later exonerated) in the infamous Central Park jogger case; and El-Sayyid Nosair, who was convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the murder of Israeli politician Rabbi Meir Kahane.
“Dad’s clients gave us nightmares,” Emily explains in the film’s voiceover narration. “He told us that everyone deserves a lawyer—but sometimes we didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father.”
The Nosair case, in particular, felt not just wrong but dangerous. Protesters often massed outside the family’s West Village row house, chanting “Kunstler must go!” Bullets arrived in the mail. Their father, fearing bombs, opened packages alone in his basement office.
In one particularly nervy moment, the daughters appear in a 1993 clip from a local cable television news show, in which Sarah coolly but pointedly interrogates her father. She asks him if he ever wanted to get out of a case that he’d committed to, then adds a deft zing, noting, “Some people act, and some people defend them. Maybe [Emily and I are] just people of action.”
In the same interview, the sisters flatly state that they’ll never be lawyers. Emily has thus far kept her word, but Sarah now works as a criminal defense attorney in Manhattan. What happened?
“At that point, Emily and I wanted to be nothing like our dad,” Sarah says. “We wanted to forge paths that were completely independent of his. So saying that we weren’t going to be lawyers, we were going to be people who act, was like saying, ‘We’re going to have independence from you and do our own thing.’ But at the same time we learned social responsibility from our parents. We were imbued with a sense that it’s our responsibility to go out into the world and fight for justice and make change, and along the way I figured out that being a lawyer was a way to do that.”