Eleanor Jackson Piel became a lawyer because classmates told her she could not get into law school. “So of course I applied,” she said in an interview published by the University of California, Berkeley law school. “Imagine this being my motivation! Because Barney Schapiro said I couldn’t!”
The school’s acting dean also tried to dissuade Piel, rejecting her application because “females always had nervous breakdowns”, she recalled. But Piel got in anyway and was the only woman in her graduating class. Decades later, the New York Times would call her “the courts’ most elegant pain in the neck”.
Piel, who has died aged 102, applied her trademark persistence to fighting wrongful convictions as a criminal defence attorney in an era when many female lawyers were relegated to working as secretaries.
Born in Santa Monica, California, in 1920, Piel was the daughter of a Protestant concert pianist and a Jewish doctor from Lithuania. Her father faced persistent anti-Semitism, and was expelled from a local beach club after members discovered his Jewish heritage. Piel’s mother forbade her from publicly identifying herself as Jewish.
“I was upset about the fact that people didn’t like Jews, when I was half Jewish, and then I had my mother being anti-Semitic,” Piel told Berkeley. “It just didn’t seem fair.”
Piel said that sentiment inspired her to advocate for victims of injustice. She originally planned to do so as a journalist after graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles, but her father refused to pay for her to continue her studies.
As a young female lawyer in the 1940s, Piel struggled to find a firm to hire her. She opened her own in 1948 and practised alone for most of her career, doing all her research and preparing exhibits herself.
Working as a clerk in the federal district court in San Francisco fresh out of law school, she sided with Japanese Americans interned by the US government during the second world war who were indicted for not reporting for the military draft. She went on to prosecute war crimes in Tokyo.
Piel also defended white school teacher Sandra Adickes, who was arrested after trying to dine with her black students at a segregated lunch counter in Mississippi. Later, she took on the case of 13-year-old maths prodigy Alice de Rivera, who was denied admission to a prestigious New York high school because of her gender.
On her wedding day in 1955, she convinced a judge to throw out murder cases against three of her clients. She married Gerard Piel, the late publisher of the magazine Scientific American and had one daughter and a stepson.
One of her most famous victories was in the case of the so-called “death row brothers” William Riley Jent and Earnest Lee Miller. In 1979, they were convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a Florida woman. The victim, unidentified until five years later, was found strangled and burnt in a game preserve.
Piel represented Jent and local public defender Howardene Garrett represented Miller in their appeal. Together, they asserted that police and prosecutors arrested the brothers because they were “available and disposable young men”. Authorities “solve[d] the case by conjuring their own murder story out of thin air”, Piel later wrote.
Piel got a judge to stay their execution at the last minute, and later secured their release through a plea deal. Jent and Miller consistently claimed that they were innocent. But the case meant that the man thought to be the actual killer was never charged, a fact Piel was angry about for decades.
“She has been an inspiration to thousands of lawyers dedicated to justice,” said Christina Swarns, the executive director of the Innocence Project, a non-profit that works to overturn and prevent wrongful convictions. “She will not be forgotten.”
After 10 years of work and aged 78, Piel had one of her last great victories. Her client Vincent Jenkins, later known as Warith Habib Abdal, had spent 17 years in prison for a rape that he did not commit. Piel paid $3,000 out of her own pocket to have evidence retested, eventually discovering that his DNA did not match that of the assailant.
Piel took cases well into her nineties. She still made time to encourage young lawyers and made frequent visits to St. John’s University School of Law in her adopted home of Manhattan, said John Barrett, a professor there.
“She always was blow-the-crowd-away awesome,” Barrett said. “She was the lawyer and person we all wanted to be.”