By Alice Kim
On March 1, the Chicago abolitionist community lost a first-rate attorney and anti-death penalty activist.
Richard Cunningham was stabbed to death by his 26-year-old son, Jesse, who is schizophrenic. Even more tragically, his son, who has been battling his illness for years, has been charged with first-degree murder. With his last words, Cunningham asked the doctor to call a colleague to “make sure [Jesse] has the best representation he could have.”
Cunningham was an appellate defender who was best known for his work on capital cases. He was a brilliant attorney, and much more. At a packed memorial service to celebrate his life, it was clear that Cunningham had touched the lives of many people. Family, friends, colleagues and fellow activists shared stories about his life — his love for his family, his passion for justice, his commitment to acting on his beliefs.
At the service, Ronald Jones, the 12th innocent man released from Illinois’ death row, said that he owed his freedom to Cunningham, who was his attorney. “You could say that he saved my life,” said Jones. “And I will keep fighting until we abolish the death penalty. That was Cunningham’s dream.”
Last year, Cunningham won a new hearing for Death Row 10 member Ronald Kitchen, who was tortured by Chicago police officers into “confessing” to a crime he did not commit. And earlier this year, Cunningham won a hearing for Illinois death row inmate Renaldo Hudson.
Cunningham genuinely cared about his clients. “Every year he sent me a card and a $25 money order on my birthday,” said Leonard Kidd, one of Cunningham‘s clients. “Do you know how much that meant to me?”
But Cunningham’s work went beyond the courtroom. In his earlier days, when he worked at the public defender’s office in Chicago, he helped to organize a union there. He was the vice president of the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project and helped to lead the push for a moratorium in Illinois. Cunningham was always willing to pick up the megaphone and speak out against injustice. He spoke at the first rally in Chicago for the Death Row 10 in 1998 and many more since then.
Just weeks before his death, at a Campaign to End the Death Penalty rally in Chicago, Ronald Jones took the stage and thanked Cunningham for his efforts. Cunningham, who was sitting in the audience, stood up with his fist in the air as hundreds applauded his achievement.
This image of Cunningham — as a spirited fighter who made a difference — is how we will remember him.