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William P. Homans Jr. was an iconic civil liberties and criminal defense lawyer who mentored generations of younger lawyers that followed in his path. He appeared in cases that defined his times, from representing targets of the McCarthy-era inquisitions of the 1950s, to defending publishers of books like Tropic of Cancer when the authorities sought to suppress them, to serving on the defense team in the conspiracy trial of internationally-renowned pediatrician Benjamin Spock and four other leaders of the anti-Vietnam-War movement, to defending a doctor charged with manslaughter arising from an abortion he performed soon after Roe v. Wade legalized such procedures. In each case, Homans advanced the larger causes as well as his clients' interests.

William Homans also defended countless persons whose names are not widely known and who paid him little or nothing because, like John Adams before him, he believed profoundly that each accused is entitled to the best defense possible. Acutely aware of the many imperfections and biases in the criminal justice system, he was a passionate opponent of the death penalty, and in a series of landmark cases, he persuaded the Supreme Judicial Court to abolish the penalty in Massachusetts.

Homans's contributions to the law remain a model for the legal profession, and many valuable lessons may be drawn from his fifty-year career at the Bar.


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  • Subject
    • Civil Rights and Discrimination

    • Constitutional Law

    • Criminal Law

    • Human Rights Law

    • Law and Society

  • Journal title
    • New England Law Review

  • Volume
    • 46

  • Issue
    • 1

  • Pagination
    • 37-63

  • Date submitted

    7 September 2022

  • Keywords