Michael Kennedy, a leading New York lawyer described by his attorney friend Mike Dowd as “a man who had his heart and soul invested in Irish freedom” died on Monday of cancer in New York. He was 78.
While his best known clients and cases included defending the founder of High Times (of which Kennedy later became chairman) against drug smuggling, Kennedy also was the lead lawyer in the famous 1982 Brooklyn IRA arms trial in which the defendants, all leading Irish American supporters of the IRA, were found not guilty thanks to a brilliant defense.
He was also Ivana Trump’s lawyer and enabled her to take The Donald to the cleaners in their divorce battle. Ivana Trump became one of the closest friends of the Kennedys after he discovered Trump was nowhere as wealthy as he was claiming but still wangled a huge settlement.
In 1991, Ivana Trump received $15 million, the couple’s 45-room Greenwich,CT mansion, a Manhattan apartment at Trump Plaza on Third Avenue, $300,000 annually in child support, $350,000 a year in alimony, and use of the Trumps' Florida mansion, Mar-a-Lago, for one month a year. She also retained her job at the Plaza Hotel.
The October 1982 arms trial has become legendary, with leading law figures such as Kennedy, Frank Durkan, Michael Dowd, Barry Scheck among others involved in a case that left the US government baffled and the British government furious that men like Mike Flannery, head of Irish Northern Aid, escaped conviction. Another to walk was self-proclaimed gun runner George Harrison from Mayo, a veteran of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, who successfully proved against all odds that the CIA set him up.
In his opening of George Harrison’s defense Frank Durcan stated “my client wants it to be known that he resents being charged with running guns for one year; he wants the court to know it was 20 years he has been running guns.”
The trial became famous for the extraordinary work of Kennedy and his team. Far from denying gunrunning by their clients they admitted it but said that George DeMeo, a secret government agent who sold them the guns, entrapped them into doing it. The jury believed their story to the consternation of the Feds.
There were some incredible moments in the trial such as Michael Flannery making his own closing argument and saying as he pointed to the prosecution “George Washington is sitting over here with us and the British government is sitting with you.” He would later go on to be Grand Marshal of the NYC St. Patrick's Day parade, a hugely controversial pick at the time.
The New York Times reported that a C.I.A. attorney, Launie Ziebell, testified that his agency had no involvement in the operation, nor any relationship with DeMeo, 48, of Yonkers, who was convicted in Raleigh, NC in 1980 of Federal charges of conspiring to send arms to the I.R.A. He was under a 10-year sentence in that case when he sold the defendants the arms.
DeMeo's purported relationship with the C.I.A. was the central issue in the trial, based on DeMeo’s own statements but denied strongly by the US government. Prosecutor Kirby, in his closing statement to the jury, said: ''There's no C.I.A. involvement in this at all. It's a fabrication. They don't have any other defense.''
''Each of these defendants was caught red-handed,'' Kirby said. ''They didn't have anywhere else to turn.'' However, in his closing argument, Kennedy, who was one of seven defense attorneys on the case, contended, ''It is up to the Government to prove that the C.I.A. was not involved with the defendants, not our burden to prove that it was.''
It was a brilliant defense and the crowd packed full of Irish sympathizers went crazy when the verdict of Not Guilty was read out. Over 100 people chanted Irish rebel songs and danced in the corridors outside the courtroom.
It was Michael Kennedy's finest hour, says Michael Dowd, and the bonds forged among the seven pro bono lawyers were very deep. They all came together on the date of the acquittal every year and even went on a trip to Ireland together. “He was delighted with the peace process," Dowd said, “to see Sinn Fein in power and an end to violence.”
According to Legacy.com, Kennedy’s career as both a civil liberties and criminal attorney began in California in the 1960s, when he successfully defended Black Panther Huey Newton on manslaughter and murder charges in Oakland. In San Francisco, he won acquittal for all seven young Mexican Americans, Los Siete de la Raza, charged with murdering a police officer in the city's Mission District.
In Illinois he represented Rennie Davis, a member of the Chicago Eight accused of conspiracy and inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and served as Mr. Davis's lawyer before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C. He also represented Bernardine Dohrn who belonged to 1960s radical group, The Weathermen.
Other clients included members of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the most famous member of which was Timothy Leary, LSD guru to a generation. In Lincoln, NE Mr. Kennedy won acquittal in a most time-consuming trial – it still remains the longest criminal jury trial in U.S. Federal Court history – known as The Pizza Connection; the name came from accusations of drug money laundering through pizza parlors in New York City.
He also won clemency from New York Governor Mario Cuomo for Jean Harris, the private girls' school headmistress who was in prison for the notorious murder of her lover, Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower.
Kennedy worked on only one divorce case in his career and although the settlement was sealed, reliable sources reported that Ivana Trump was very pleased. Trump had rented a house near him in the Hamptons. There were many pro-bono cases about which no one has written.
Kennedy was described in a New York Times obituary as a consummate gentleman, with a quick Irish wit and a quick Irish temper. But he very rarely raised his voice, being the personification of Theodore Roosevelt's foreign policy: 'Speak softly but carry a big stick.'
Michael Kennedy and Eleanora, his wife of forty-seven years, spent time between New York City, his Hamptons home Kilkare, his old Key West cottage in West Palm Beach and his house in Ireland's Black Valley. Michael John Kennedy was born in Spokane in Washington State before moving to California and then New York. He credited beiing drafted and serving in the army during the Vietnam War as the reason for his radical approach to life.
Friends may call at Frank E. Campbell, 1076 Madison Avenue at 81st Street on Wednesday from 2-4 and 6-8pm. The funeral service will be held on Thursday at 10am at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, 60th Street and Columbus Avenue.