The Chicago Eight Trial (1969–1970): Deconstructing the Image of Public Enemies

By Marianne Debouzy

The Chicago Eight trial (September 1969–February 1970) concerns eight people accused of conspiracy after the summer 1969 riots that broke out during the Democratic National Convention in a context of increasing unrest due to the war led by the United States in Vietnam. Attorneys William Kustler and Leonard Weinglass had to fight on several fronts throughout the trial. While having to assume their roles as law experts and making sure that legal proceedings should be respected in spite of several instances of power abuse by Judge Julius Hoffman, they stressed the political character of justice and of their clients' actions. They needed to deconstruct the criminal image and public enemy portrait brushed of their clients by the prosecution and media alike while at the same time attempting to requalify a criminal trial as a political trial. Several means were used to establish the political character of the trial. The attorneys notably anchored their clients' actions in a tradition of riot that stemmed from the very foundations of the United States. The way W. Kustler conceived his role as “lawyer of the antiwar movement” and his questioning of the judicial system were far from popular within legal circles however. Both attorneys also led a constant fight against the suspicious means used by the prosecution, which went against the most elementary laws of the judicial system (such as manipulating the jury for example). In several ways, the trial contributed to the evolution of the attorneys' practice of the law, the latter being liable to suffer from the judge's sanctions.


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