Eleanor Jackson Piel, US civil attorney, 1920-2022

Eleanor Jackson Piel became a lawyer after her classmates told her she couldn’t go to law school. “So of course I applied,” she said in an interview published by the law school at the University of California, Berkeley. “Imagine if that were my motivation! Because Barney Schapiro said I couldn’t!”

The school’s acting dean also tried to dissuade Piel, turning down her application because “women always had nervous breakdowns,” she recalled. But Piel came in anyway and was the only woman in her senior year. Decades later, the New York Times called her “the courts’ most elegant pain in the neck.”

Piel, who died at the age of 102, used her characteristic tenacity to fight wrongful convictions as a criminal defense attorney at a time when many women lawyers were relegated to secretarial work.

Piel was born in Santa Monica, California, in 1920 to a Protestant concert pianist and a Lithuanian Jewish doctor. Her father faced ongoing anti-Semitism and was expelled from a local beach club after members discovered his Jewish heritage. Piel’s mother forbade her to identify herself publicly as a Jew.

“I was upset that people didn’t like Jews when I was half Jewish, and then I had that my mother was anti-Semitic,” Piel told Berkeley. “It just didn’t seem fair.”

Piel said that feeling inspired her to stand up for victims of injustice. She originally planned to do this as a journalist after graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, but her father refused to pay her to continue her studies.

As a young lawyer in the 1940s, Piel struggled to find a firm to hire her. She opened her own in 1948 and practiced alone for most of her career, doing all her research and preparing exhibitions herself.

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She worked as a clerk at the federal district court in San Francisco, fresh out of law school, and sided with Japanese Americans who were interned by the US government during World War II and charged with not reporting for military service. She continued to prosecute war crimes in Tokyo.

Piel also defended white schoolteacher Sandra Adickes, who was arrested after attempting to dine with her black students at a segregated lunch counter in Mississippi. She later took on the case of 13-year-old math 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 drop murder cases against three of her clients. She married Gerard Piel, the late editor of Scientific American magazine, and had a daughter and stepson.

One of their 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 sentenced to death for the murder of a Florida woman. The victim, who was unknown until five years later, was found strangled and burned in a game reserve.

Piel represented Jent and local public defender Howardene Garrett represented Miller on her appeal. Together they claimed that police and prosecutors arrested the brothers because they were “available and available young men.” Authorities “solve[d] the case by conjuring up their own murder story out of thin air,” Piel later wrote.

Piel got a judge to stay her execution at the last minute and later secured her release through a plea deal. Jent and Miller kept claiming their innocence. But the case meant the man believed to be the actual killer was never charged, a fact Piel was furious about for decades.

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“She has been an inspiration to thousands of attorneys dedicated to justice,” said Christina Swarns, executive director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit dedicated to overturning and preventing wrongful convictions. “She will not be forgotten.”

After 10 years of work and at the age of 78, Piel had one of her last major wins. Her client Vincent Jenkins, later known as Warith Habib Abdal, had served 17 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. Piel paid $3,000 out of her own pocket to have evidence retested and eventually discovered that his DNA did not match that of the attacker.

Piel took cases well into the 1990s. She still made time to encourage young lawyers and frequently attended St. John’s University School of Law in her adopted home of Manhattan, said John Barrett, a professor there.

“She always wowed crowds,” Barrett said. “She was the advocate and person we all wanted to be.”