Photo by nwilsonphoto.com

Dennis Cunningham, a husband and father in his late 20s, went to law school at night at Loyola University, Chicago, during the 1960s. Inspired by the civil rights movement to shape up after a drop-out youth, he got his license just in time to cut his teeth in 1968, that momentous year, defending people arrested in riots that followed the murder of Martin Luther King, and protests at the Democratic National Convention. Inspired again by lawyers and organizers working with the NLG, he helped found what is still known and still going strong in Chicago as the People’s Law Office, and participated in numerous cases involving protesters and protest movements, prisoners and prison rebellions.

Chief among these were the 12-year civil prosecution of FBI agents, the State’s Attorney, and Chicago police officers involved in the infamous “weapons raid” on December 4, 1969, in which Illinois Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot to death, and the defense of dozens of prisoners falsely accused as “ringleaders” of the rebellion at the Attica State Prison in western New York in 1971. After the false charges were thrown out, Dennis was part of a team of Guild lawyers who prosecuted state officials that had been in charge of the massacre of 39 prisoners and state employee hostages when the prison was retaken, and mass torture of prisoners afterwards. That case went on more than a quarter-century, and was finally was settled in the Year 2000.

Dennis relocated in San Francisco in the early 80s to be near his four children, and has continued to do movement work and police misconduct cases. With other Guild lawyers, he helped represent protesters in mass arrests in the 1984 Democratic Party convention, anti-nuke actions at Site 300, anti-apartheid demonstrations in Berkeley San Francisco, the police sweep of Castro Street in 1987, Central American solidarity actions in the 80s, the Rodney verdict protests in 1992, Food Not Bombs, ActUp, Religious Witness with the Homeless, and others.

In early 1992, Dennis got involved in a case Bill Simpich had started 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 Oakland, in May, 1990, just at the start of Redwood Summer, a planned season of mass protest and direct action against destruction of old growth forests on the North Coast. After Judi’s tragic death from breast cancer in 1997, Dennis and Bill, with Tony Serra, Bob Bloom, Ben Rosenfeld and paralegal Alicia Littletree finally brought the case to trial in 2002, and won. In what was apparently only the second time FBI agents had faced a jury in a civil rights case (the Fred Hampton case was the first), a unanimous jury awarded Bari and Cherney $4.4 million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages, 80% of which were assigned to the plaintiffs’ claims that the sensational false arrest after the bombing was a latter-day Cointelpro operation, in violation of the First Amendment.

Their work in the Bari case led to the legal team being recruited to represent the plaintiffs in the “pepper spray” case, where locked-down forest protection protesters in Humboldt County in 1997 had pepper spray daubed in their eyes by police after they refused orders to unlock themselves. After two hung juries, a third jury compromised on a verdict for nominal damages of One Dollar apiece, in April, 2005. A later settlement of the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees claim mercifully cut short a matter which looked like it could break the record for long cases Dennis has been caught up in. Most recently, Dennis represented Jade Santoro, one of the victims of the infamous drunken attack by off-duty San Francisco police officers, one of them the rookie son of the Assistant Chief of Police, which came to be known as “fajitagate”. Last June, a Superior Court jury awarded Jade a total of $36,500.00 in compensatory and punitive damages against two of the assailants, who testified they were, in effect, ‘judgment-proof’. So after nearly forty years, Dennis is still out there, looking for another good, juicy, endless case…

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