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Elizabeth M. Fink, 70; defense lawyer for inmates, radicals

Ms. Fink with reporters in 1999. She defended Black Panthers, inmates, and conspirators.
Ms. Fink with reporters in 1999. She defended Black Panthers, inmates, and conspirators.HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP/Getty Images/File

NEW YORK — Elizabeth M. Fink, a fiery advocate for society's outcasts who devoted much of her law career to vindicating and compensating inmate victims of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, died Tuesday in New York. She was 70.

Her brother, photographer Larry Fink, said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Born into leftist politics as a self-described "red diaper baby," Ms. Fink represented a panoply of pariahs during four decades.

They included Cathy Wilkerson, who was accused in a Weather Underground bomb-making conspiracy; members of the Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN; a Black Panther Party leader who was charged with attempted murder in a machine-gun attack on two New York police officers; Lynne F. Stewart, a fellow radical lawyer; and an Algerian immigrant who pleaded guilty in a plot to bomb a Manhattan synagogue.

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Ms. Fink was just one month out of law school in 1974 when she helped draft a $2.8 billion civil suit on behalf of inmates who were killed and brutalized during and after the bloody revolt at the Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in western New York. The riot was incited by overcrowding and other abuses.

When a five-day siege by state troopers ended, 10 correctional officers and civilian employees and 33 prisoners were dead. All but one guard and three inmates were killed in what a prosecutor branded a State Police "turkey shoot."

In 2000, Ms. Fink, as lead counsel in the federal civil rights case, won an $8 million settlement from the state, plus $4 million in legal fees.

She waged her fights both in the courts and in the court of public opinion. But unlike Stewart, who was convicted of supporting terrorists by passing messages from an imprisoned client, an Egyptian cleric, Ms. Fink never pivoted from conventional advocacy to illegal acts — although she had been tempted in the 1970s, she admitted.

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"We were lawyers, but we were revolutionaries in our hearts," she was quoted as saying in Bryan Burrough's book "Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence," which was published this year.

Many of the era's radicals, she said, sought racial justice, inspired by the revolutionary oratory of the Black Panthers, who advocated self-defense and, if needed, violence.

"The civil rights movement had turned bad, and these people were ready to fight," Ms. Fink was quoted in Burrough's book. "And yeah, the war. The country was turning into Nazi Germany, that's how we saw it.

"Do you have the guts to stand up? The underground did. And oh, the glamour of it. The glamour of dealing with the underground. They were my heroes. Stupid me. It was the revolution, baby. We were gonna make a revolution. We were so, so, so deluded."

Elizabeth Marsha Fink (she was named for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and later national chairwoman of the Communist Party USA) was born in Brooklyn.

Her father, Bernard, was a lawyer. Her mother, the former Sylvia Caplan, was a nuclear weapons protester and later, at the UN, a representative of the Gray Panthers, an elder-rights group that cast itself there as a nongovernmental organization.

Ms. Fink graduated from Reed College in Oregon in 1967 and from Brooklyn Law School.

An acolyte of the defense lawyer William M. Kunstler (she later mentored his daughter Sarah, also a lawyer), Ms. Fink typically represented criminals and radicals pro bono from her Brooklyn office while more respected clients paid the freight. One was O. Aldon James Jr., the former president of the prestigious National Arts Club, who was ousted over allegations of misuse of club money and property.

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In 1990, Ms. Fink did a sprightly dance at the defense table, then wept, when she won the release of Dhoruba al-Mujahid bin Wahad, a former Black Panther who had served nearly 19 years in prison for the 1971 attempted murder of two police officers assigned to guard the home of the Manhattan district attorney, Frank S. Hogan.

The conviction was reversed after she and her co-counsel, Robert Boyle, in a civil suit, produced evidence that had been withheld by the authorities at earlier trials.

The Attica lawsuit pursued by Ms. Fink and other lawyers, including her co-counsel, Michael Deutsch, against an unrepentant state was chronicled in "Ghosts of Attica," a Court TV documentary broadcast in 2001.

Her tenacity in the Attica case even won plaudits from Dee Quinn Miller, whose father, William Quinn, was the only guard killed by inmates during the uprising.

"We both were after the truth," Miller said in a phone interview on Thursday.

In 1997, the lawyers won $4 million for one of the inmates, Frank B.B. Smith, a high school dropout who by then had become a paralegal in Ms. Fink's office. His award was later reduced to $125,000; others went as low as $6,500.

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In 2006, Ms. Fink helped free a Jordanian immigrant, Osama Awadallah, who had been accused of perjury when he denied knowing one of the Sept. 11 hijackers.