This was a speech originally given by People’s Law Office attorney Michael Deutsch this Spring at the 2017 Midwest Regional National Lawyers Guild Conference.
I also want to welcome you and recognize your commitment to be here so early on a Saturday morning. These meetings are really important to share strategies, experiences and to provide the fuel of comradeship that keeps us fighting for justice in all aspects of our work.
One of the perks/ consequences of having reached senior status, and having been around so long, is being asked to share my insights on the representation of the victims of political repression. To be sure we are entering dark and really uncharted waters, with what I would characterize as the neo fascist take- over of the executive branch of the federal government, and the very real potential of a sea change in the make-up of the federal judiciary, with the potential given the present vacancies and the attrition of the appointment of hundreds of new judges, as well as the control of state governments by conservative forces which are moving to rewrite laws to up the ante against those who protest.
However, despite the dire potential, we still have the trappings of so-called liberal or neo liberal democracy, where we have courts mandated to enforce the constitution and juries composed independent citizens.
The historic reality that the U.S. was never a real democracy, racism, sexism and exploitation, has always been with us, and as a result we have had a long history of resistance and of repression. In my own legal experience, I have seen the attacks on the anti-Viet Nam war movement, including the coordinated use of nation-wide grand juries under Nixon to imprison leaders, the Co-intelpro program which targeted BLM imprisoning and assassinating its leaders / the Attica massacre and its aftermath of indictments of the prisoners, the siege of Wounded knee the attacks on the PRIM, here and in Puerto Rico, the attacks of the CA Sanctuary movement, the use after 9/11of federal “terrorism” laws to criminalize solidarity work, particularly against Muslims and the Palestinian solidarity movement, and the passage of broad state terrorism laws to charge Occupy activists. And countless other acts of repression against workers, woman’s rights, the LGBT community, environmental and animal rights activists and the wholesale attacks and deportations of millions of immigrants.
So I want to share with you some principles I have distilled from my own experiences as a lawyer in many of these struggles. I was very fortunate as a young lawyer to have the opportunity to work with the Attica Brothers in their fight for justice. And many of the experiences I had there were repeated in the subsequent political cases that I have had the privilege of being involved in.
Of course, some of these ideas should be obvious and others will not apply universally, but I humbly offer them for your consideration.
- First and foremost, as much as possible take leadership from your clients. Understand their politics and their goals, specifically as it applies to your legal representation. At Attica we had 60 brothers charged with 1400 hundred felony counts It was our job to translate in the courtroom and if called upon outside to explain that they were not the criminals, but the victims of a massacre and a subsequent orgy of brutality. To do so we had to understand what caused the rebellion and the State’s cover-up.
When you represent a Grand jury resister, be clear if their position is non-collaboration, regardless of immunity andimprisonment. In the case of PRIM activists accused of being members of the FALN, they made a collective decision to not recognize the jurisdiction of the Court and demand POW status. This decision was a difficult one for a lawyer used to contesting the facts, but we accepted this position, prepared motions supporting their position under international law and took their case to international forums. Not surprisingly, they were convicted, but set the political stage, that they were not criminals, for their release as political prisoners. In contrast , Independence activists accused in Hartford of being member of the Macheteros, fought their case on the facts, while still raising political issues.
- Secondly, we must work with the community of supporters of your clients. We must explain carefully your strategy as much as possible and listen to their views and concerns. Hundreds of people from all across the progressive spectrum were moved to support the Attica brothers, while our relationships were not always amiable, we felt an obligation to respect their support and provide them with information.
- Work collectively with co-defendants and their lawyers. Unity is key here. In multi-defendant cases, there may be strategy, political and style differences between the lawyers, but a collective coordinated defense ensures a stronger, clearer, presentation and minimizes the possibilities of a defendant isolated and choosing to become a state’s witness. In the Pontiac prison case, in which 17 young Black men faced the death penalty we had 20 different criminal defense lawyers who were used to representing their own individual clients, but after much struggle and meetings and sharing the unity of Attica, all agreed to work together with a joint strategy. All were acquitted or had their cases dropped.
- As much as possible put the Govt/State on trial. look for ways in your motion practice to raise the political issues inherent in your case. Selective enforcement, political motivation, international law, government vindictive prosecution or misconduct to raise political issues. Use discovery to expose surveillance, spying, the names of informants and make it burdensome on the prosecution.
- Be creative! Think of ways to expose the political/repressive nature of the prosecution. In the case of Muhammad Salah, who was tortured in Israel, we kept demanding the protocols and procedures allowed by the Israeli interrogators, which the Court denied as classified. We kept insisting and ultimately the Court allowed us stipulations to be read to the jury about the Israeli methods, which were akin to torture. This was determinative in convincing the jury that he confession was coerced and unreliable.
In the case of the NATO 3 charged with material support for terrorism, – a 40 year potential sentence -we convinced the court to instruct the jury on a lesser included charge of mob action, a misdemeanor
- Act with courage. Don’t be afraid to raise political issues or challenge the prosecution’s good faith or the impartiality of the court. In Rasmea Odeh’s case we moved to recuse the Judge because of his close ties to the State of Israel. He angrily denied the motion, but later when it was exposed that his family had a financial interest in an Israeli business that was bombed he had to step down.
- Be Resilient. Don’t let bad rulings or difficult facts deter you. Study the history of political cases and what lawyers did right and what they did wrong.
- See yourself as part of the resistance movement. Your legal skills as your contribution. Fight for your clients and for justice!