Michael Kennedy, Attorney for Huey Newton and Mitchell Brothers, Dead at 78

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Michael Kennedy in 2002 (Photo: John Roca/NY Daily News/Getty Images)

Michael Kennedy, the civil rights attorney who successfully defended Huey Newton and many other notable figures in his 50-year career, has died. He was 78.

Born in Washington, Kennedy first moved to the Bay Area to attend college, first at UC Berkeley and later at Hastings College of Law. He began his legal career working on high-profile cases, most notably with Newton when the Black Panther was charged with killing Oakland Police Officer John Frey in 1967, and the Chicago Eight conspiracy case.

Kennedy started his private practice in San Francisco in 1969, and Newton would be one of his first clients. Kennedy would later defend the co-founder of the Black Panther Party against charges that he murdered a 17-year-old prostitute. Newton went to trial twice over the charge, and both times a mistrial was declared, the juries deadlocked in favor of acquittal. The charge was dropped in 1979.

Other early clients of Kennedy included LSD guru Timothy Leary, Bernardine Dohrn of the Weathermen, and Jim and Artie Mitchell, the founders of the world-famous O'Farrell Theater in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. Kennedy began working with the brothers in early '70s, defending them against obscenity charges brought by the city of San Francisco -- the brothers would be arrested close to 200 times during this period. Decades later, in 1991, Kennedy would defend Jim Mitchell against charges that he killed his brother Artie while in a drunken rage; Kennedy succeeded in reducing the charge from murder in the second degree to manslaughter.

"When you think about progressive defense attorneys in San Francisco in the 1970s, no name looms larger than that of Michael Kennedy," Senior Editor for KQED News and former Rolling Stone reporter David Weir says. "He was involved in big case after big case and my impression is that he won the overwhelming majority of them. He was a really scrappy lawyer in court, devoted to his clients, a good friend to many people (including me), the host of radical chic parties, and inside, a man with a big heart."

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By the end of the '70s, Kennedy had moved to New York and would go on to work for High Times publisher Tom Forcade, New York mob boss Gaetano Badalamenti and even Ivana Trump. He even made an appearance in the HBO documentary miniseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, as he also represented Durst's brother, Douglas Durst, and the Durst Organization.

Kennedy died Monday morning from an unspecified illness at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York. His funeral has been scheduled for this Friday.