Bentley Kassal, a former New York lawyer and judge whose clients and cases mirrored the urgencies of the court system over nearly 80 years — from the trial of Lenny Bruce for obscenity to that of Bernard Goetz for subway vigilantism to the city’s liability for sheltering the homeless — died on Dec. 19 at his home in Manhattan. He was 102.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Barbara Kassal.
Beginning with his birth in Harlem to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Mr. Kassal’s life reads like a collaborative biography, each chapter gilded to outshine the one before — World War II hero, progressive Democratic politician and elected and appointed judge.
He was born on Feb. 28, 1917, to Hyman Kassal, a liquor distributor and native of Austria, and Pauline (Nirenberg) Kassal, who was from Poland.
After graduating from Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan, Mr. Kassal earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937 and a law degree from Harvard Law School, where he played on the undefeated Eastern League championship rugby team. He was admitted to the bar in 1940.
He enlisted after Pearl Harbor and served in the Army Air Forces in North Africa and Europe as an intelligence officer. He was awarded the Bronze Star, participated in three invasion landings and was discharged as a captain. In 2009 he was awarded membership in the American Society of the French Legion of Honor.
As a state assemblyman from the West Side of Manhattan from 1957 to 1962, he introduced legislation that resulted in the establishment of a state arts council; and his opposition to the annual renewal of a bill requiring Cold War loyalty oaths from state employees led to its expiration.
In 1964, appearing in his only major criminal case, he represented Bruce, the controversial comedian, who was arraigned on obscenity charges after a performance at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village.
Bruce was sentenced to four months in prison but never served. He died before his appeal was decided and was posthumously pardoned by Gov. George W. Pataki in 2003.
“I represented him and Howard Solomon, the owner of Cafe au Go Go, in 1964 when they were arrested for obscenity and had them released from custody that night after a midnight hearing at the apartment of Appellate Justice Arthur Markewich,” Mr. Kassal recalled in a letter to The New York Times in 2003.
“I had the pleasure and good fortune to see Lenny Bruce’s act; he was brilliant and funny,” he added. “In comparison with the present everyday commonplace use of profane words, on television, radio, on the stage and in movies, his act was mild, temperate and very inoffensive.”
In 1986, writing the majority opinion for the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, Justice Kassal upheld the dismissal of charges against Mr. Goetz, who is white, in the shooting of four black youths in a subway car in 1984.
The decision concerned the prosecutor’s instructions to the grand jury: Should Mr. Goetz’s action in shooting the youths be judged in the context of his state of mind at the time or that of a hypothetical reasonable man placed in the circumstances that Mr. Goetz faced? The incident, which occurred amid rising crime rates, prompted a debate over self-defense versus vigilantism that is still going on.
The Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, affirmed the prosecutor’s charge to the jury that a defendant’s belief that he is in imminent danger does not by itself justify the use of deadly force; an objective belief, one that would be shared by a hypothetical reasonable person, is also required, the court said.
Mr. Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder and first-degree assault and convicted of carrying a loaded, unlicensed weapon in a public place.
In 1993, Justice Kassal, as part of an appellate panel, ruled that the city’s practice of leaving hundreds of homeless families to sleep overnight in city offices for as long as a week was “intolerable.”
“The city’s contention that compliance is impossible is belied by the fact that the city was able to do so in the recent past,” the court said.
After being elected to a seat on the Civil Court, Justice Kassal served on the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division. In 1985, he was appointed by Chief Judge Sol Wachtler to serve for a brief term on the Court of Appeals. After reaching mandatory retirement age, he joined the prominent firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as counsel to the litigation department.
He retired when he was 101.
For decades Mr. Kassal worked as a volunteer photographer for charitable organizations, traveling around the world on vacations and donating images that were used by UNICEF, Save the Children Federation and other philanthropic groups.
In addition to his wife, a retired Bonwit Teller executive, he is survived by his godchildren, Aaron Rosenberg, Lauren Chesbrough, Maggie Villano and Bubba Kassal.
Mr. Kassal met Barbara Wax when she was 19. After a lifetime of bachelorhood, he married her in 1986, when he was 69 and she was 44. It was the first marriage for both.
“I had a lot of growing up to do,” she said, “but I knew he was the one.”