Attorney Makes Mark by Taking Cases That Others Avoid
by Andrew Blankstein
Los Angeles Times
March 28, 2005
It was a moment that defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach had been working toward for months.
As he began closing arguments in the Robert Blake murder trial, the judge asked the 60-year-old attorney to speak up so she and the court audience could hear. "I will try to keep my voice up," the bifocaled, bow-tied Schwartzbach told Judge Darlene E. Schempp.
Then, turning to the seven men and five women in the jury box, he added, "But these are the folks who really" matter.
Two weeks later, the jury acquitted Blake of murder in the 2001 fatal shooting of his wife, as well as of solicitation to hire a Hollywood stuntman to carry out the killing. A second solicitation count was dismissed.
Although the victory brought Schwartzbach national attention, it was far from a defining moment for the soft-spoken Mill Valley attorney. Over a 38-year legal career, Schwartzbach has made his mark by taking on many cases that others avoided, some at his own expense, others as a court-appointed counsel.
In 1981, Schwartzbach was one of the first attorneys to defend a client using the battered-women's syndrome defense, in the case of Dolores Churchill, who had been charged with shooting her police officer husband. A year later, Schwartzbach won a case that established the right of a defendant facing the death penalty to be represented by two lawyers.
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Schwartzbach was the youngest of three children and grew up in the nearby town of Kingston on the Susquehanna River.
He went on to attend Washington & Jefferson College near Pittsburgh, and graduated in 1969 from George Washington University Law school.
It was during his law school tenure in Washington, D.C., when he represented poor families against slumlords, that Schwartzbach had an epiphany.
"That's when I knew I wanted to be a lawyer," he said of the experience. "When I saw that the law could be used as a vehicle for social change, not just to make the rich richer."
He began his legal career in Detroit in the late 1960s, first with the Volunteers in Service to America program, then in what would later become the Detroit public defender's office, organized by the local bar association.
There, Schwartzbach got an early taste of politics when he tried to organize lawyers in the office to fight for a colleague who had been fired for defying a judge.
When he failed to persuade the bar, Schwartzbach and the colleague who was dismissed opened their own law office.
Schwartzbach said the experience left him burned out and disillusioned, but ultimately made him a better defense lawyer. The attorney had notions of dropping out and becoming a hippie, but he didn't, because, he says, of "too much Jewish guilt."
Schwartzbach settled for the next best thing -- moving to the counterculture capital, San Francisco, in 1972.
There, he was among half a dozen attorneys representing poor families in the Bay View-Hunter's Point section of San Francisco. He later opened his own practice, often representing indigent defendants.
Instead of racking up hundreds of verdicts, he got involved in "some very, very long trials," which he said generated more stress than fees.
Among his famed cases before the Blake case was the 1986 acquittal of Stephen Bingham, an Ivy League-educated lawyer accused of smuggling a gun to a San Quentin State Prison inmate in 1971.
Six people, including two prison guards, were killed during an escape attempt in which prisoners used the weapon. Bingham, who fled the country for 13 years before returning to face trial, was acquitted of conspiring with inmate George Jackson, a Black Panther and leader of a black prison rights movement, and other charges.
Schwartzbach negotiated a settlement on behalf of attorney Johnnie Cochran's longtime companion, who in 1997 sued the attorney for palimony.
In 2003, he won the freedom of Glen "Buddy" Nickerson, who had served 18 1/2 years of a life sentence without parole for a double slaying that he did not commit. The defense lawyer spent thousands of dollars of his own money in representing Nickerson.
The next year, while checking messages during a rare vacation in Palm Springs, Schwartzbach retrieved two calls. The first was from his doctor informing him that he had skin cancer, which was successfully treated.
The other was from Bridget Daniels, a young lawyer who was contacting lawyers on behalf of Blake to fill a vacancy left by the departure of Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., one of three high-profile Southern California lawyers who had left the case.
Schwartzbach, who had no track record in celebrity cases, was reluctant to interview for the job. He called his old friend Lois Heaney of the National Jury Project in Oakland. She convinced him that he would be the perfect fit. But trim the shaggy beard, she urged.
The first meeting between Blake and Schwartzbach lasted four hours. "I told him that I don't promise results, and I'll never lie to you," he said.
He also steered clear of the media -- a tack decidedly contrary to strategies taken by his predecessors on the case. The media, Schwartzbach believed, had already tried his client.
In the Blake trial, Schwartzbach showed "how one can be successful doing it another way," said Beverly Hills lawyer Carl E. Douglas, who was part of the O.J. Simpson defense team.
"You put your spin in your court papers," he said. "You put your spin on in the courtroom."
Jurors were impressed.
"He didn't need to put up a defense," panelist Charles "Chuck" Safko said after the verdicts were announced. "He destroyed almost every witness the prosecution put there."
Looking back, Schwartzbach said the Blake case wasn't a big departure from his other cases.
"Innocent people get convicted because the Constitution doesn't work," Schwartzbach said. "People don't just investigate [crimes]. They become advocates. I took the case because it was a challenge to make the Constitution work for Robert."
He added, "My goal has always been to make the Constitution work for everybody because, if it doesn't work for everybody, it doesn't work."