Lawyer Eleanor Jackson Piel, who fought against executions, passes away at age 102.
Eleanor Jackson Piel passed away
She was a well-known advocate for the oppressed and won numerous well-publicized cases, including the Florida appeal known as the Death Row Brothers case.
Eleanor Jackson Piel passed away on Saturday at her home in Austin, Texas. She was a civil rights attorney known for managing appeals for death row inmates and cases involving false convictions. She even obtained a stay of execution for a man 16 hours before his scheduled execution. Her age was 102.
Eleanor P. Womack, her daughter, attested to her passing. Ms. Piel was renowned for both her strength in the courtroom and her long career: she practiced law for seven decades until she was in her early nineties. She worked alone for the majority of that time, first in Los Angeles and then, starting in the middle of the 1950s, in New York.
Who is Eleanor Jackson Piel?
Ms. Piel was renowned for both her strength in the courtroom and her long career: she practiced law for seven decades until she was in her early nineties. She worked alone for the majority of that time, first in Los Angeles and then, starting in the middle of the 1950s, in New York.
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.
The courts “most elegant pain in the neck”
The New York Times described Ms. Piel as “the courts’ most elegant pain in the neck” in a 1999 profile. Ms. Piel agreed right away.
She claimed in the same piece, “I am persistent, and I enjoy defying authority. There is no doubt.
One of her most well-known triumphs occurred in the Death Row Brothers case, a well-known Florida capital appeal. The murder of a woman in 1979 at Dade City, which is about 40 miles north of Tampa, served as its focal point. The body had been burned after being doused in gasoline, strangled, and left unidentified for a while.
William Riley Jent, a biker, and his half-brother Earnie Miller, a roofer, who was suspected of growing and selling marijuana, were both detained by police under pressure to crack the case. Ms. Piel later referred to them as “available and disposable” men.
The brothers were found guilty and given death sentences after separate trials. In the summer of 1982, Ms. Piel volunteered to represent Jent in the appeal; Howardene Garrett, a Florida public attorney, represented Miller. The date of their execution was set for July 1983.
The attorneys discovered that the police and prosecutors had purposefully misidentified the victim to fabricate a version of events linking the brothers to the crime; encouraged multiple witnesses to lie; and intimidated a witness who had witnessed the murder itself, could identify the victim and was prepared to testify that someone else — the victim’s boyfriend — had been the murderer.
In an essay from 2003, Ms. Piel stated, “We worked nonstop, day and night, through the week before the execution date.” They lost their appeals at the hands of the Florida Supreme Court. They requested a stay of execution from Judge George C. Carr of the US District Court in Tampa with less than 16 hours left to go.
According to Ms. Piel, “the judge had before him all the pleas we had filed in the state courts.” Judge Carr stated, “I can’t read these papers before 7 a.m. tomorrow.’” Judge Carr then turned to face the stack of papers. The execution is postponed.
The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, and the ABC Press magazine “20/20” were among the news outlets that the attorneys contacted on behalf of the brothers’ release when they were allowed to plead guilty to murder in 1988.
Even though “there was adequate evidence to convict him of that crime,” Ms. Piel wrote, their plea meant that charges could not be pursued against the actual killer. In 2009, she declared to Transcript Magazine, a journal of her alma institution, the University of California Berkeley Law School, that “It was a tragedy.” Yet they were set free.
Eleanor Jackson Piel’s Early life
Ms. Piel’s interest in standing up for the weak dates back to her early years. On September 22, 1920, Eleanor Virden Jackson was born in Santa Monica, California. Louis, her father, was a Jewish doctor from Lithuania. Louis altered the family name from Koussevitzky to Jackson because it was the most American-sounding surname he could think of (the conductor Serge Koussevitzky was a cousin).
Her mother, pianist Millicent (Virden) Jackson, was referred to by Ms. Piel as “a certified traditional Anglo-Saxon.” Eleanor’s mother once warned her not to bring up the matter again after she displayed pride in her Jewish origin.
In the Transcript interview, Ms. Piel stated, “I was concerned by the fact that people didn’t like Jews when I was half Jewish, and then I had my mother being antisemitic. It simply seemed unfair.
She applied to law school after earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1940. She was turned down for admittance because the dean told her during the interview that “females always had nervous breakdowns,” she said years later.