Watch Nkechi Taifa, lawyer and CEO of the social justice-centered consulting firm Taifa Group and longtime friend and supporter of Mutulu Shakur and Brad Thomson from the People’s Law Office and Mutulu Shakur’s current attorney talk to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman about the urgent push for the compassionate release of longtime political prisoner Mutulu Shakur from prison. #FreeMutulNow!
Click here to watch the full interview on Democracy Now!
Click here to view the petition for writ of habeas corpus filed last week for Mutulu.
“We had decided to call ourselves the People’s Law Office, informally at least, and our purpose was easily encapsulated in the obligation to be worthy of that name.” – – – Dennis Cunningham
On August 1, 1969 a dedicated band of ’60s radicals opened the People’s Law Office in a converted sausage shop located at 2156 N. Halsted Street on Chicago’s North Side.That founding band was comprised of attorneys Francis “Skip” Andrew, Dennis Cunningham, Jeff Haas, and Don Stang; law students Seva Dubuar, Ray McClain, Flint Taylor and Jack Welch, and a volunteer staff that included BPP member Ann Campbell and, I think, Rising Up Angry member Norrie Davis.53 years later we are proud to say that we have done our best to continue to be worthy of the name. Today’s PLO members, carrying on in the footsteps of hundreds of lawyers, law students, and staff who are treasured alumnae and alumni are attorneys Ben Elson, Jani Hoft, Joey Mogul, Jan Susler, Flint Taylor, Brad Thomson, Michael Deutsch (of counsel) and John Stainthorp (of counsel); staff members Lourdes Arias, Kris Clutter, and Alexis Pegues, and summer interns Molly Crane, Julia Van Horn, Emani Miles, and Tayleece Paul.La Luta Continua!
Follow this link to a short film documenting some of our work over the past five decades.
2023 CIVIL RIGHTS LITIGATION AND MOVEMENT LAWYERING FELLOWSHIP
People’s Law Office is seeking one or more post-graduate fellows, beginning in the fall of 2023.
The program is a two-year commitment, with the possibility of continuing at the firm at the end of the fellowship. The program is designed for newly admitted attorneys (with less than 5 years experience) who are interested in civil rights and criminal defense litigation and working with and on behalf activists and organizers fighting for social change.
The Civil Rights Litigation and Movement Lawyering Fellowship will provide an opportunity to work in all practice areas in which People’s Law Office provides representation. Fellows will participate in all aspects of civil litigation in federal court, including written discovery and depositions, legal research, drafting motions and memos, and participating on trial teams. Additional opportunities include representation of clients in criminal matters at both the trial level and post-conviction phase.
Our attorneys and legal workers have successfully fought for the civil and human rights of people who have been wrongfully convicted, falsely arrested, tortured and subjected to other forms of state violence. Our office has also steadfastly provided legal support to social movements fighting for radical change, representing political organizations, campaigns, activists, and individuals who have faced government repression because of their political views or organizing work.
J.D. degree or expected by spring 2023
Admission to the Northern District of Illinois, or ability to be admitted by fall 2023
Preference toward candidates with anticipated or current admission to the Illinois bar
Strong research and writing skills
Experience working in civil rights or other aspects of public interest law
Demonstrated commitment to supporting marginalized and oppressed communities
Experience and/or familiarity with social justice organizing and movements fighting for social change
A cover letter or email describing your interest in civil rights litigation, movement lawyering, and the work of People’s Law Office.
We will be conducting interviews and extending offers on a rolling basis.
Salary and Benefits
The position is a full-time, two-year position. Starting salary begins at $65,000 annually, with the potential for higher rates based on experience. Compensation also includes generous benefits and paid time off.
Additional Information Fellows are expected to live in, or be willing to move, to the Chicagoland area.
BIPOC, women, people of all gender identities and gender expressions, and persons with disabilities are encouraged to apply.
2023 SUMMER INTERNSHIPS
People’s Law Office is accepting applications for our 2023 summer internship and educational program, which focuses on civil rights litigation rooted in social and racial justice and radical legal work.
Interns will participate in a wide range of litigation-related work and will be exposed to a progressive law office that has been committed to being “people’s lawyers” since 1969. Our attorneys and legal workers have successfully fought for the civil and human rights of people who have been wrongfully convicted, falsely arrested and subjected to excessive force and torture at the hands of law enforcement officials and prosecutors. The office has also steadfastly represented political activists and individuals who have been targeted by government officials because of their political views or organizing work.
The program is open to law students, with a strong preference for students who have completed their second year of law school. Candidates should demonstrate experience in and/or commitment to social justice, organizing and/or social movements. To apply please send a resume, cover letter and writing sample to plo[at]peopleslawoffice.com. Applications will be accepted until December 11, 2022, and will be reviewed on a rolling basis. Remote positions are available, with a preference for applicants residing in Chicago. The position includes a stipend.
BIPOC, women, people of all gender identities and gender expressions, and persons with disabilities are encouraged to apply.
Fifteen years ago, my colleagues at the People’s Law Office and I were engaged in a legal and political battle with the city of Chicago over police torture. Then-corporation counsel Mara Georges was threatening to renege on a settlement agreement that had been reached on behalf of several torture survivors who had been awarded innocence pardons by former Gov. George Ryan.
Seeking to bolster our public case that a settlement was more fiscally responsible than continuing to fight the individual lawsuits in court, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request for attorneys’ fees and costs paid to private counsel to defend Jon Burge, his band of henchmen, and the city in these cases. The total to that point was $10 million. Add to that the $7 million that Cook County taxpayers kicked in to finance a four-year investigation of Burge torture by special prosecutors that was widely condemned as a whitewash, and the tab for police torture in Chicago, as of September 2007, was roughly $17 million.
Fast-forward 15 years, and the city and county are repeating the same approach to police torture cases. The city is currently fighting seven lawsuits filed by torture survivors in federal court. And the county’s special prosecutor continues to fight tooth and nail to maintain convictions that were obtained through alleged torture.
The only thing that has changed is the total cost to taxpayers, which has now ballooned to more than $210 million — and counting.
How have we reached this figure? Through public-records requests and available data, we tallied the total amount paid in defense and special prosecutor fees, settlements, state Court of Claims and Torture Commission expenditures, and pensions to alleged torturers. This figure doesn’t include the unknown amount that the federal government expended in successfully prosecuting Burge and later investigating, but refusing to indict, his two self-anointed “right-hand men.”
City of Chicago ‘pinstripe patronage’ ($37.5 million)
“Pinstripe patronage,” so dubbed by legendary Chicago attorney R. Eugene Pincham, has long been an important aspect of the city and county’s response to police violence litigation. In the 1970s, they collectively expended more than $2 million in defense of Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan and the Chicago police officials who planned and carried out the fatal raid on the apartment of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. In the 1980s, the Chicago City Council appointed former prosecutor William Kunkle to represent Burge in Andrew Wilson’s federal torture case, and the parade of private lawyers in the Burge cases has continued to this day.
Demond Weston’s petitions for relief were routinely denied. But that was before the full extent of Chicago police torture under disgraced commander Jon Burge was known, and before the three Burge subordinates who questioned Weston were accused of torturing confessions out of suspects in a series of other cases.
The total pinstripe patronage now stands at $37.5 million. Three enterprising lawyers, Andrew Hale, Terry Burns, and James Sotos, and their associates are by far the leaders in collecting fees to defend the city in police misconduct lawsuits. Collectively, they have taken home $21 million in defense of the Burge torture cases (and, as remarkably, $116 million in total taxpayer-funded fees and costs from 261 police misconduct cases since 2004).
Cook County special prosecutors and ‘pinstripe patronage’ ($19.5 million)
The Cook County Board and Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office have also practiced pinstripe patronage by hiring outside lawyers (often former prosecutors) to represent the county in the Burge cases. In 2002, Circuit Judge Paul Biebel, in charge of the court’s criminal division, appointed two former state’s attorneys, Edward Egan and Robert Boyle, to investigate the mounting allegations of torture and abuse by Burge and his crew. Four years and $7 million later, they finished their investigation with a report that exonerated former State’s Attorneys Richard M. Daley and Richard Devine while invoking the statute of limitations as a rationale for not returning any indictments.
In 2009, another special prosecutor was appointed, this time to resist the claims of torture that were being heard in the Cook County criminal courts, a task that the private law firm headed by Michael O’Rourke took on with a vigor that has rivaled that of their city defense brethren. The county has paid these private lawyers more than $8.5 million since 2009, according to my calculations based on the monthly meetings of the Cook County Finance Committee (curiously, the running total posted by the committee in its monthly agenda is about a million dollars less).
The county also pays private lawyers to represent former prosecutors who are sued for their alleged roles in the conspiracy to torture and cover up. Together with settlements in those cases, the county has paid another $4 million in public monies. Thus, the county has expended at least $19.5 million in opposing claims of torture in the criminal courts and otherwise furthering the cover-up of the Burge torture scandal.
Pensions to Burge and his alleged co-conspirators ($38.7 million)
Despite public outcry, Burge continued to collect his pension after he was fired by the Chicago Police Department, convicted by a federal jury for lying about torture, and served 54 months for perjury in Butner federal penitentiary. Those payments had amounted to more than $900,000 when he died without beneficiaries in September 2018. His two foremost “right-hand men,” John Byrne and Peter Dignan, who have been found to be torturers by Office of Professional Standards investigators and a federal civil jury, have collected an additional $2.65 million. When all the detectives and supervisors who have been found or repeatedly accused of torture and cover-up are included, the number balloons to $43 million.
A man exonerated after 33 years in prison for double murder says records prove then-Lt. Philip Cline lied to jurors during his trial about taking his confession in 1987. He is suing the city.
Several Area 2 commanders and police superintendents — most notably Phil Cline, LeRoy Martin Sr. and Fred Rice — also played important roles in the torture scandal, and their pensions add another $5.3 million to the mix. All totaled, these pensions amount to $48.37 million, approximately 80% of which has been funded by the city.
City settlements, verdicts, and reparations ($108.2 million)
While spending taxpayer money without compunction to defend police torture, city leaders have shown an opposite attitude when addressing the damage that the Burge torture scandal has visited on its African American victims. After its unsuccessful attempt to renege on the 2006 group settlement, city lawyers during the Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel administrations employed a similar strategy in almost all the successive cases that were brought by exonerated torture survivors — fight the case tooth and nail, racking up million of dollars in fees, and then reluctantly settle the case as the trial date neared. After Emanuel, under intense pressure, agreed to a historic reparations package that included financial compensation to 57 torture survivors who had no legal recourse and made a full-throated admission of culpability, one would have thought that the days of the city insisting in court that there was no systemic torture had finally come to an end.
Civil rights lawyer Flint Taylor questions why the Lightfoot administration has hired lawyers who aggressively challenge in court the credibility of defendants’ contentions they were tortured into confessing by members of the crew of former Chicago police commander Jon Burge.
Unfortunately, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in stark contrast to her repeated public condemnations of the pattern and practice of torture under Burge, has doubled down on the city’s defense of police torture. In 2020, for the first time since 1989, the city took a police torture case to trial, defending notorious Burge henchmen Byrne and Dignan in the Stanley Wrice case. The jury handed the city a resounding defeat — a $5.2 million verdict. After blustering that it would appeal, the city quietly settled last year for just over $6 million.
Since 2005, the city has now settled 19 cases for a total $101.25 million. When the $5.5 million in reparations and the $1.4 million obtained in the 1990s are added, the total awarded adds up to $108.15 million, with at least seven cases still pending.
State torture commission and court of claims ($7.9 million)
In 2009, the state of Illinois passed the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission Act, thanks to the organizing of Black People Against Police Torture and state legislators Kwame Raoul and Art Turner. The TIRC Act provided for administrative review of Burge-era police torture cases and empowered the commission to send meritorious claims of torture back to the Cook County criminal courts for new hearings. The commission, whose scope has subsequently been expanded, has sent numerous cases back to the courts, and many survivors have been afforded new trials. To date, the TIRC has cost state taxpayers $4.5 million.
The state Court of Claims is tasked by law to award a legislatively determined amount to those Illinois prisoners who were wrongfully convicted and were subsequently determined to be innocent. To date, 16 Burge torture survivors who have received a judicially awarded certificate of innocence or an executive innocence pardon have received a combined $3.4 million from the Court of Claims for a total of 378.5 years of wrongful incarceration. This figure does not include the million of dollars expended to house these innocent men.
Seven pending police torture cases
The total expenditures are staggering. And the end is not in sight.
Seven Burge-era torture survivors are currently seeking damages in federal court — all but one of them have been declared innocent after decades in prison. To date, Lightfoot, the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Cook County Board have lawyered up, committing untold additional millions to continue defending the indefensible.
Three of the cases merit special mention. Robert Smith, James Gibson, and Jackie Wilson spent a collective 98 years behind bars and have been found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Not only have they sued their alleged torturers and the prosecutors who allegedly collaborated with them, but they also have sued the city for its admitted pattern and practice of torture under Burge.
Gibson, 54, spent nearly 30 years behind bars after he says he was beaten into confessing to two 1989 murders. In an essay, Gibson recounts how his wrongful conviction and long fight for freedom robbed him of his identity, and how he’s trying to move forward.
In Smith’s case, one of the defendants is Cline, who replaced Burge as the Area 2 crimes lieutenant in 1986 and later ascended to become the superintendent. According to Smith’s allegations, Cline did nothing to investigate or stop the pattern and practice of torture but rather perjured himself to cover for one of the detectives who physically abused Smith. Cline, now the executive director of the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation, has denied the allegations.
In the Gibson case, the city’s pinstripers have followed a well-worn path: They moved to bifurcate the pattern and practice claim from the underlying torture claims to avoid admitting in court what the city’s policymakers have repeatedly admitted publicly. The judge denied their motion and will now decide whether to grant summary judgment on the issue of whether there was a policy and practice of torture — a motion, supported by an amicus brief signed by 47 business and civic leaders, which I hope will hoist the city on its own policymakers’ petard.
In the Jackie Wilson case (Full disclosure: I am one of his lawyers), a parade of prosecutors — from the assistant state’s attorney who had been previously found by special prosecutors Egan and Boyle to have lied when he denied his involvement in the torture to the prosecutors who wrongfully prosecuted Wilson three separate times — are named as conspiring co-defendants. Several of these former prosecutors are now the subjects of another special prosecutor’s investigation into their alleged perjury and obstruction of justice. Wilson is not only armed with a certificate of innocence but also with detailed findings by the criminal court judge who ultimately dismissed his case that he was tortured as part of the pattern and practice at Area 2. So far, the city and county’s response, no doubt influenced by Cline and the Fraternal Order of Police, has been to double down with eight sets of private lawyers who are throwing all sorts of highly questionable arguments at the wall, including a frivolous challenge by one of the prosecutor’s lawyers to the TIRC’s right to refer meritorious cases to the criminal courts.
It is now 50 years since Burge and his crew tortured their first Black victims, yet the city and its mayor, aligned with the Fraternal Order of Police, and the county and its state’s attorney, aligned with old-guard prosecutors who reigned under Daley, Devine, and Anita Alvarez, continue to deny, obstruct, and spend taxpayer dollars in state and federal court in an unending and unconscionable effort to deny freedom and compensation to those torture survivors who so richly deserve some modicum of justice.
Until the political powers that be remove themselves from the wrong side of history, the Burge torture scandal will drag on, and the taxpayers will continue to involuntarily fund the torture deniers who are responsible for this shameful chapter of racist police and prosecutorial violence and cover-up.
The father of Joseph Lopez, and his attorneys, Flint Taylor and Ben Elson of the People’s Law Office and Greensboro attorney Graham Holt, have today filed a Federal Civil Rights lawsuit against Greensboro police officer Matthew Hamilton, and the City of Greensboro for Hamilton’s fatal shooting of Joseph Lopez on November 21, 2021. Thecomplaint, which was drafted after attorney Holt obtained a Court order and viewed the GPD body worn camera (BWC) footage of the shooting, alleges that
without justification, Defendant Hamilton released his police dog into the room where Joseph was sitting.
The dog unjustifiably attacked Joseph who yelled out in distress
Seconds later, Defendant Hamilton walked through the door, pulled his handgun from his holster, stepped into the room, and without saying anything, shot Joseph once square in the face with his service handgun
Joseph died at the scene as a result of the hollow-point gunshot wound.
Immediately after fatally shooting Joseph Lopez square in the face, Defendant Hamilton exclaimed “Oh s**** . . . f***.”
Joseph was unarmed, was sitting in a chair approximately 15 feet away from Hamilton, he made no verbal or physical threats to Defendant Hamilton or others, and presented no immediate danger to Defendant Hamilton or others.
Hamilton and his fellow officers engaged in a cover-up of Hamilton’s shooting which the medical examiner’s investigator nonetheless classified as a “homicide/murder.”
The complaint also names the City of Greensboro on the basis that the GPD had in place several related policies, practices, and customs, including
An unconstitutional pattern and practice of using excessive and deadly force disproportionately against persons of color;
Failing to properly discipline GPD officers who engage in excessive and/or deadly use of force and by otherwise publicly covering-up the true nature of these incidents;
Failing to properly train and supervise GPD officers in the specific areas of use of canines, use of deadly force in circumstances when a citizen is unarmed and presents no danger to himself, the officers involved, or any other person, and in de-escalation tactics.
Chicago attorney Flint Taylor, on behalf of Joseph’s father, called out the GPD and the Guilford County District Attorneys’ Office for their failure to act in response to this egregious police shooting: More than six months after this homicide-murder, It is outrageous that officer Hamilton remains on the police force. He should be fired for unjustifiably taking an innocent man’s life. He should be criminally charged by the District Attorney, and the City of Greensboro should take whatever steps are necessary to make the BWC videos available for the public to see for themselves what happened on November 21, 2021.
On March 5, 2022, Dennis Cunningham, who was the epitome of a true and uncompromising people’s lawyer, transitioned peacefully at his son’s home in Los Angeles, California.
Dennis was a unique and brilliant human being, who proudly wore his radical politics on his sleeve and never shied away from writing about, speaking on, or putting into action his passionately held and thoroughly analyzed beliefs.
At the age of fifteen Dennis attended the University of Chicago as part of a Ford Foundation program for students who had completed two years of high school. After graduating, he traveled around Europe for several months in a battered Vespa, going over the Alps and the Dolomites to Rome, hanging out with numerous people, including jazz musicians, most notably saxophonist Dexter Gordon. He worked as a copyboy for the Chicago Sun Times, worked as a reporter for a small Iowa newspaper, and returned to Chicago to be involved in the starting of Chicago’s famed Second City, where he worked as a bartender and improv actor.
Inspired by the 1963 March on Washington, which he called “the engine of my enlightenment”, Dennis went to work for the City of Chicago’s Human Relations Commission, investigating housing discrimination, while attending Loyola of Chicago’ Law School at night. He left the City job when he realized, in the wake of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s response to Dr. King’s 1967 march for open housing, that he was working “for the wrong side.” He was sworn in as a lawyer in November of 1967, just in time to represent persons arrested in the uprising that followed the assassination of Dr. King and the Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As Dennis recently described it:
a zillion people got busted [at the convention]. Three weeks later [attorney] Ted [Stein] and I are sitting there, the two of us, and everybody left town, and we had like 300 cases. . . I started going to court. I had really good luck then because I got to try a lot of cases, and they were all bench trials.
Shortly thereafter, filmmaker Howard Alk introduced Dennis to Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush, who were starting the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Soon after that, Fred requested that Dennis represent him in a multi-defendant mob action case that arose from a demonstration against a segregated swimming pool in Fred’s home town of Maywood, Illinois. As Dennis described the experience:
This guy, Ivory (a co-defendant) was represented by (notable Black attorney) James Montgomery, who I vaguely knew. But there he was, and I’m like thank goodness I have someone to watch what he does, and have half a clue as to what I’m supposed to do, and that’s the way it went. . . I don’t have a lot of memory about how the trial went except that I gave a rousing closing argument, which Fred really liked, that sounded really good. Montgomery later acknowledged that it was good, and we got a not guilty, that was really sweet. A big relief I’ll tell you that. I sure didn’t want to lose that case.
At about this time, Dennis was talking to two other young lawyers, Skip Andrew and Don Stang, about starting a law collective, which they decided they would “boldly” name the People’s Law Office. With Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party, Cha-Cha Jiminez and the Young Lords, and SDS members as clients who were regularly subjected to arrests and police violence, Dennis, Andrew and Stang, together with attorney Jeff Haas, and law students Seva Dubuar, Flint Taylor, Ray McClain and Jack Welch, opened the People’s Law Office in August of 1969.
When the Chicago police murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in a pre-dawn raid in December of 1969, Dennis took a leading role in coordinating the legal and political effort that the People’s Law Office, the Panthers, and the Black community of Chicago mounted to expose the lies that the raiding police and the conspiring Cook County prosecutors were loudly trumpeting in the media and in the courts. A few years later, the PLO, lead by Dennis, Haas and Taylor, undertook the Herculean task of uncovering and exposing the FBI and its Cointelpro program’s central role in the assassination of Fred Hampton, a legal and political battle that spanned more than a decade and included an 18-month Federal civil rights trial. As Taylor described Dennis’ role:
He was an advisor, a mentor, an inspiration; he always had the big picture, he always thought about, and knew about what one move would lead to with regard to the next move . . . his involvement was crucial to our plotting out and making our 13- year fight to expose the FBI’s role in the assassination.
Also in the early 1970s, Dennis became involved in the 30-year struggle to defend the Attica Brothers and to expose the truth in the wake of the 1971 prison rebellion and the law enforcement massacre that followed. Michael Deutsch, who was recruited to the People’s Law Office in 1970 and worked side by side with Dennis during the series of criminal and civil legal battles, incapsulated Dennis’ leading role:
Dennis had the unique ability of bringing the political essence to the courtroom, not only in court but also in his written advocacy. He was a master at capturing the political nature of the case. For the 30 years we worked on Attica, Dennis was a key person in organizing the Brothers, in putting forth the Brothers’ position, in helping to maintain unity among the Brothers. He related to the Brothers in a way they could trust and know that he believed in their struggle.
In Chicago, Dennis also represented numerous leaders and members of the SDS-Weathermen, and Rising Up Angry, and later provided counsel to arrested FALN members and Palestinian liberation hero Rasmea Odeh. One of the most famous of those clients, Bernardine Dohrn, eloquently linked Dennis’ acting background to his unique lawyering skills:
I picture him as lanky redheaded hipster, coolly unlawyerly, Darrow returned as Nelson Algren. Dennis was a performance of understated defiance, hurling himself into history on the side of the dispossessed. Dennis does law as the theater of improv. He was an early practitioner of the disciplined art of spontaneity, schooled in the improvisational acting techniques of Viola Spolin and Paul Sills at Second City and the Compass Players. Perhaps Dennis is the singular fusion of improv and the practice of law, taking the drama of legal performance into the uncharted territories of jazz riffs and invention. His skills of listening, clarity and confidence, of wit and speed, are seen in today’s progeny of poetry slams, hip hop and rap performances.
In the early 1980s, Dennis moved to San Francisco where he continued his career as a people’s lawyer, while maintaining a close working and comradely relationship with the People’s Law Office. With other Bay area lawyers, he represented protesters who were subjected to mass arrest at the 1984 Democratic Party convention; during anti-nuke actions at the Livermore Laboratory; at anti-apartheid demonstrations; and at Central American solidarity actions. He also represented folks arrested during the police sweep of Castro Street in 1987; at the Rodney King verdict protests in 1992; and during actions by Food Not Bombs, Act Up, and others. Dennis also defended classical violinist Nicholas Leiser, who persisted in playing his violin in BART stations despite repeated arrests, and brought a case that established the right of musicians to play in such public places. After defending Religious Witness with the Homeless for multiple sit-ins, leading Sister Bernie Galvin of Religious Witness called Dennis “the world’s greatest lawyer.” Remarkably generous in practicing people’s law, he represented numerous prisoners without fee, and was a charter member of the Fleagle Aid group that dispensed free legal advice at a Berkeley flea market during the late 1980s.
In 1992, Dennis and Ben Rosenfeld brought a case against FBI agents and Oakland police officers involved in the frame-up and media smear of Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, after a car-bomb assassination attempt against Judi in May 1990. The attack came at the start of Redwood Summer, a planned season of mass protest and direct action against the destruction of old-growth forests. Dennis and Ben were part of a legal team that brought the case to trial in 2002, and won a $4.4 million verdict with eighty percent of the award assigned to plaintiffs’ first amendment claims that the sensational false arrest after the bombing was a latter-day Cointelpro operation. Dennis’ youngest daughter, Bernadine Mellis, documented the Bari case and Dennis’ role in it in the award-winning film The Forest for the Trees.
Following the Bari case, the legal team was recruited to represent plaintiffs in the “pepper spray” case, where locked-down forest-protection protesters in Humboldt County had refused orders to unlock themselves, and had pepper spray daubed in their eyes by police. After two hung juries, a third jury compromised on a 2005 verdict for nominal damages of one dollar per plaintiff. A later settlement of the Plaintiffs’ claim for attorneys’ fees brought the case to a final resolution. In typical Cunningham fashion, Dennis shared his hard-earned fee with his clients.
Dennis, a career-long active member of the National Lawyers Guild, was one of the originators of the Guild’s National Police Accountability Project, and was honored first in Boston by the national Guild, and later by the Guild’s San Francisco chapter who awarded him the 2007 Spirit of Justice Award. Importantly, he was also supported without fail by his remarkable family, particularly including his daughters Delia, Miranda and Bernardine, and his son Joe.
As the tributes continue roll in from clients, friends, colleagues, and so many others whose lives Dennis touched, former People’s Law Office lawyer Jeffrey Haas aptly summed up Dennis’ legal career:
In court and in his writing Dennis was brilliant, imaginative, a visionary, often histrionic, and a passionate defender of many Movement leaders and causes.
He was, without a doubt, a true people’s lawyer.
Note: the author gratefully acknowledges the use of information from the Anti-Imperialist News article of March 7, 2022 entitled Dennis Cunningham – transitions at the age of 86 on March 5 as well as other interviews, tributes and collective recollections.
Dennis Cunningham, our dear friend and 50 plus year comrade in the struggle for justice and human rights, has passed away. He was an inspiration for, and one of the founders of, the People’s Law Office, and a mentor and role model to all of us and to many others.
He represented with creativity and militancy, Fred Hampton and many other Black Panthers, the Attica Brothers, Judy Bari, Puerto Rican independentistas, Rasmea Odeh, Geronimo Pratt and many others. He brought his improv experience at Second City to the courtroom and to his brilliant written advocacy.
Dennis was one of a kind, and will be deeply missed by all those who knew him and loved him. Special condolences to his wonderful children, Delia, Joe, Miranda and Bernardine, his three grandchildren, his brother Robbie and his nieces and nephews.
As a result of much blood, sweat and tears by the Marcus Smith family, community activists, and the Smith legal team, the Greensboro City Council voted last evening to settle the Marcus Deon Smith case by releasing the following joint statement:
The City of Greensboro and the family of Marcus Deon Smith have reached an agreement to resolve the lawsuit brought by the Estate of Marcus Deon Smith. Importantly to these parties, the total settlement of $2,570,000 (the majority of which will be paid by the City of Greensboro and the remainder by Guilford County) will financially benefit both the parents of Marcus Deon Smith and his children, and will formally acknowledge with a commemorative plaque that Marcus Deon Smith’s life mattered. These parties will soon request judicial approval of the settlement and dismissal of the lawsuit, without any findings of wrongdoing or liability. After the settlement is concluded, these parties intend to move forward in the spirit of respect and reconciliation.
While the details of the agreement are still confidential,we on the legal team and on behalf of the Smith family want to thank the activists of Greensboro and all those of goodwill in the Greensboro community for standing shoulder to shoulder with us in this long struggle for transparency and justice in the Marcus Deon Smith case. We are gratified that this agreement will honor Marcus’s deep love for his children and that the City of Greensboro will formally recognize that Marcus Deon Smith’s life matters.
The Smith Legal Team Flint Taylor and Ben Elson of the People’s Law Office and Graham Holt
On Wednesday, Bernina Mata’s freedom team filed a Petition for Executive Clemency on behalf of Bernina Mata with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. Anchored by Bernina’s long-time attorney Joey Mogul, along with Rachel-White Domain of the Illinois Prison Project, Love & Protect, American Friends Service Committee–Chicago, and a third year law student from NYU. We are calling on Governor Pritzker to commute Bernina’s sentence and bring our friend home. To learn more about Bernina’s case read the Injustice Watch article, and go to FREEBERNINA.com to find out how you can support Bernina’s clemency. #FreeBernina!
In the wake of the deadliest prison riot in U.S. history, a group of radical, young lawyers banded together to defend the inmates. It became a lifelong commitment, and an experience still profoundly affecting their lives.
Our civil rights lawyers in Chicago have been successfully fighting for the victims of police brutality, wrongful convictions, false arrest and other government abuses for over 40 years. If your constitutional rights have been violated, we can help.…