Elmer Gertz is a civil rights attorney who helped spare Jack Ruby from a death sentence and got ``thrill killer'' Nathan Leopold paroled after more than 30 years in prison.

Gertz became a national figure in the late 1950s, when he won parole for Leopold. Leopold and Richard Loeb were University of Chicago students, sons of millionaires, when they were accused in 1924 of the ``thrill killing'' of 14-year-old Bobby Franks. In its time, the case was the ``trial of the century.''

Famed attorney Clarence Darrow persuaded the two to plead guilty and saved them from death sentences. In 1958, Gertz got Leopold paroled by persuading authorities he had rehabilitated himself in prison. Leopold, who had a genius-level IQ, had devoted himself to study in prison, mastering 27 languages. (Loeb had died in prison in 1936.)

Getz made news again in the early 1960s, this time for defending Henry Miller against obscenity charges tied to his novel ``Tropic of Cancer.'' The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately sided with Miller, refusing to allow the book to be banned.

Gertz also argued against the death penalty for Ruby, who was convicted of killing Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy. Ruby's death sentence was overturned, but he died in prison of natural causes in 1967.

In 1968, a landmark case was decided in Gertz's favor when the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to disqualify potential jurors because they objected to capital punishment.

``I feel justified in my fights,'' Gertz said in a recent interview for John Marshall Comment, the magazine of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. ``One of the difficulties in the American criminal justice system is that we think in terms of vengeance, not in terms of preventing crime or treating criminals so that they cease to be criminals.''

Gertz, a 1930 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, fought for fair housing in Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, and argued for the admission of black lawyers into local bar associations.

He was chairman of the Bill of Rights Committee during the Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1969-1970 and is credited with including strong civil rights language that became a model for other states.

``He is one of the great civil libertarians of the nation. He is willing to take on unpopular causes,'' said former Sen. Paul Simon, a friend of Gertz's for more than 30 years.

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