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 36-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.