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Eleanor Jackson Piel, lawyer who fought capital convictions, dies at 102

Ms. Piel, in her law office in 1999. She served as a lawyer for seven decades and her cases included several death penalty appeals.Ozier Muhammad/NYT

Eleanor Jackson Piel, a civil rights lawyer renowned for handling wrongful convictions and death row appeals — once securing a reprieve for a man 16 hours before he was to be executed — died Saturday at her home in Austin, Texas. She was 102.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Eleanor P. Womack.

Ms. Piel was noted not only for her courtroom mettle but also for her professional longevity: She practiced law for seven decades, until she was in her early 90s. For much of that time she was a solo practitioner, first in Los Angeles and later, from the mid-1950s on, in New York.

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At midcentury — a time when few women went into law and fewer still took up criminal law — Ms. Piel helped win victories for clients as diverse as interned Japanese Americans prosecuted as World War II draft resisters; a teenage math prodigy determined to attend Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan (then for boys only) despite her sex; and, in a case argued before the Supreme Court, a white teacher denied service at a Mississippi lunch counter because she was with a group of Black students.

In a profile of Ms. Piel in 1999, The New York Times called her “the courts’ most elegant pain in the neck.”

Ms. Piel readily concurred. “I am persistent,” she said in the same article, “and I like to challenge authority. No question about it.”

One of her most celebrated victories came in a Florida capital appeal familiarly known as the case of the Death Row Brothers. It centered on the 1979 murder of a woman near Dade City, roughly 40 miles north of Tampa. The victim, who remained unidentified for some time, had been strangled, doused with gasoline, and set aflame.

Under pressure to solve the case, police arrested two men who by their lights were, Ms. Piel later wrote, “available and disposable”: William Riley Jent, a biker, and his half brother Earnie Miller, a roofer, who was suspected of growing and selling marijuana, police said.

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Tried separately, the brothers were convicted and sentenced to death.

Ms. Piel joined the appeal as a volunteer in the summer of 1982, representing Jent; a Florida public defender, Howardene Garrett, represented Miller. Their execution was scheduled for July 1983.

The lawyers found that the police and prosecutors had deliberately misidentified the victim in order to spin a narrative of the crime that implicated the brothers; suborned perjury from more than one witness; and intimidated another witness who had seen the actual murder, could identify the victim, and was prepared to testify that someone else — the victim’s boyfriend — had been the killer.

“We worked around the clock, day and night, through the week before the execution date,” Ms. Piel wrote in a 2003 essay about the case.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled against their appeals. With less than 16 hours remaining, they petitioned Judge George C. Carr of the US District Court in Tampa for a stay of execution.

“The judge had before him all the pleadings we had filed in the state courts,” Ms. Piel wrote. “Judge Carr looked at the stack of paper and declared: ‘I can’t read these papers before 7 o’clock tomorrow morning. Stay of execution is granted.’”

In 1988, after the lawyers involved the news media — notably The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, and the ABC News magazine “20/20” — the brothers were allowed to plead guilty to murder in exchange for their release.

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Their plea meant that charges could not be brought against the actual killer, despite the fact, Ms. Piel wrote, that “there was ample evidence to convict him of that crime.”

“It was a travesty,” she told Transcript Magazine, a publication of her alma mater, the University of California Berkeley Law School, in 2009. “But they were freed.”

Ms. Piel’s interest in championing the marginalized began in childhood.

Eleanor Virden Jackson was born on Sept. 22, 1920, in Santa Monica, Calif. Her father, Louis, a doctor, was a Lithuanian Jew. (The original family name was Koussevitzky — conductor Serge Koussevitzky was a cousin — which, upon arriving in the United States, Louis changed to Jackson, the most American surname he could conceive.)

Her mother, Millicent (Virden) Jackson, “a confirmed traditional Anglo-Saxon,” as Ms. Piel described her, was a pianist.

Once, when young Eleanor expressed pride in her Jewish heritage, her mother admonished her never to mention the subject again.

“I was upset about the fact that people didn’t like Jews, when I was half Jewish, and then I had my mother being antisemitic,” Ms. Piel said in the Transcript interview. “It just didn’t seem fair.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1940 from University of California Berkeley, she applied to the law school. She was denied admission: The dean who interviewed her, she recalled long afterward, informed her that “females always had nervous breakdowns.”

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She did a year of law school at the University of Southern California before transferring to Berkeley. She earned her law degree there in 1943, the only woman in her class.

She took a job as a clerk for Judge Louis E. Goodman of the US District Court in San Francisco. He had specifically wanted to hire a woman, not for reasons of parity but because, Ms. Piel recalled, absent other prospects, “she would stay there forever.”

She was plunged into civil rights law in 1944, when she accompanied Goodman to Eureka, some 300 miles north, to hear a case there, United States v. Masaaki Kuwabara.

The case concerned 27 American-born men of Japanese ancestry, interned nearby at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. They had been indicted after choosing not to report for their military draft physicals.

It distressed her and Goodman that the men now faced felony charges because they had declined to be conscripted by the country that had interned them. They knew they would need to find case law to support the men, but there was no law library in Eureka.

They were, however, able to obtain a copy of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, the law mandating draft registration. In its text, they found these words: “In a free society the obligations and privileges of military training and service should be shared generally in accordance with a fair and just system of selective compulsory military training and service.”

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Ruling that internment was antithetical to the aims of “a free society” and “a fair and just system,” and that the men had therefore been denied due process, Goodman quashed the indictment. The government did not appeal the case.

After the war, Ms. Piel worked in Tokyo, first for the International War Crimes Tribunal and later, under General Douglas MacArthur, to help rebuild Japan’s economy.

Returning to the United States in 1948, she established a solo practice in Los Angeles, handling criminal cases at a time when that specialty was accorded little respect in legal circles.

“Criminal law was such a low level in the profession that anyone who gave it time was a sport,” Ms. Piel said in the 1999 interview. “I couldn’t understand why it was so disrespected. To me, facing the unknown and coming up with something on my feet that worked was heaven.”

In 1955, she married Gerard Piel, the publisher of Scientific American magazine and a scion of the family that brewed Piels beer. She joined him in New York.

Their wedding announcement in The Los Angeles Times, published just after Ms. Piel had won an acquittal in a criminal case, was headlined “Three Youths Freed and Lawyer Wed.”

In the summer of 1964, amid the civil rights movement, she took up the case of Sandra Adickes, a white teacher from New York who had gone to Mississippi to volunteer in a Freedom School.

One day that August, Adickes and six of her students, all of whom were Black, decided to test the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson the month before.

They entered an S.H. Kress & Co. department store in Hattiesburg and sat down at the lunch counter together. The students, who ordered first, were served. Adickes was denied service because, she was told, she was “in the company of Negroes.”

On leaving the store, Adickes was arrested on a charge of vagrancy.

Represented by Ms. Piel, Adickes sued Kress, whose headquarters were in New York. After lower courts ruled in the store’s favor, her case, Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Reviewing the case in 1970, the court vindicated Adickes, calling the vagrancy charge “groundless.”

In his majority opinion, Justice John M. Harlan II wrote: “Few principles of law are more firmly stitched into our constitutional fabric than the proposition that a State must not discriminate against a person because of his race or the race of his companions.”

In a widely publicized case, Ms. Piel, working with Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, secured the release in 1999 of Vincent Jenkins, a man imprisoned for 17 years for a 1982 rape in Buffalo that he did not commit.

Jenkins (also known as Warith Habib Abdal) was freed after Ms. Piel, who had learned in 1991 that physical evidence from the case was still extant, paid $3,000 of her own money to have the material sent for DNA testing.

Though results from an early test were inconclusive — the technique was still quite young — a second, more sophisticated test, performed in 1999, eliminated Jenkins as having been the rapist.

A number of Ms. Piel’s successes involved women’s rights. In 1969, she took on one of her youngest clients: Alice de Rivera, 13, a New Yorker who had scored in the 99th percentile on a citywide mathematics exam.

Alice wanted to attend Stuyvesant High — all male since its founding in 1904 — because it offered the advanced courses she sought and was convenient to her home.

In April 1969, while the case was being heard in state Supreme Court, the New York City Board of Education, in an out-of-court settlement, agreed to allow girls into Stuyvesant. The next September, an inaugural group of about a dozen girls was admitted.

Alice, however, was not among them: Her family had moved from the city in the interim. In 2013, Stuyvesant, which has long been fully coeducational, awarded the former Alice de Rivera — a physician in Maine now known as Alice Haines — an honorary diploma.

Ms. Piel’s husband died in 2004. In addition to Womack, she leaves a stepson, Jonathan Piel; nine grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and two step-great-grandchildren. She lived most of her life in uptown Manhattan, and she moved to Texas to live with her daughter as her health worsened in her 90s.