Criminal defense law is a challenging practice, and defense lawyers are interesting people with great stories to tell. One of them is San Francisco Bay Area lawyer Gerald Schwartzbach. He is perhaps best known for his defense of Robert Blake, described in his book “Leaning on the Arc: A Personal History of Criminal Defense.*” Schwartzbach talks about his experiences as a defense lawyer in this interview by Mark Wahlstrom, CEO of Sequence Media Group.
Schwartzbach didn’t grow up wanting to be a lawyer, but he gave law school a try and fell in love with it in his second year. His clinical work at George Washington University Law School got him in touch with poor people who needed legal representation. He saw that law offered him something good to do with his life, helping people who needed help.
Schwartzbach explains that there are many challenges in taking on a case with a high profile client like Robert Blake. There was some perception that Blake was guilty and had just hired a sharp lawyer to get him off. Blake had a reputation as a difficult client. Schwartzbach focused his attention on trying the case in the courtroom, not in the media. He was determined not only to get an acquittal, but to remain unchanged by all the publicity. Schwartzbach says that one challenge of the case was to get Blake to understand that the case would be tried in court, not on television. Jury selection was a big challenge in the case because scientific evidence would be a big part of the case. Schwartzbach needed a jury that could understand the evidence and follow the law.
Schwartzbach says that criminal defense remains a difficult area of practice; it’s not one for a person who wants to get rich in practicing law. Society does not value criminal defense lawyers. One of the difficulties can be judges who are hostile to criminal defendants. Acquitting defendants because their constitutional rights were violated is not letting someone off on a “legal technicality.” Scwartzbach says that over 1,700 defendants have been exonerated after having been wrongly convicted. “Criminal defense lawyers fight for everybody.”
Schwartzbach believes that the U.S. needs to put more money and effort into solving the root problems of crime. Harsher punishment is not the solution. Longer sentences, mandatory sentences, and private prisons are not fixing the crime problem. Schwartzbach points out that the criminal justice system tends to objectify people, then dispose of them as things, not human beings. Americans need to understand that people can be redeemed. Our society needs to have a greater appreciation of the rights afforded by the Constitution.
* “Leaning on the Arc” is also available from Barnes and Noble.
M. Gerald Schwartzbach, a trial lawyer for over 40 years, is listed in Best Lawyers, Super Lawyers, The Martindale-Hubbell Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers, and the Marquis publications Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in America and Who's Who in American Law. He is a recipient of the Skip Glenn Award, presented for outstanding service in defense of a client by California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a statewide organization of over 2,000 criminal defense attorneys. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of Sequence Media Group.