Schwarz caps his courtroom career

MIDDLEBURY — Jerry Schwarz has just about seen it all during his almost 38 years as a public defender. He’s defended clients on charges ranging from petit larceny to murder, with just about every other offense in between. But the gregarious attorney with his trademark bushy gray beard and booming voice will retire from his post as Addison County public defender in order to live life more fully outside of the courtroom.
“I love the people and the work, but you can’t do it forever,” Schwarz said during a recent interview.
Schwarz, an avid sports enthusiast and student of pop culture, once imagined his law degree as a ticket to becoming a silver-tongued sports agent akin to Jerry Maguire, rather than a barrister for the poor.
“I originally went to law school hoping to combine the law with sports,” said Schwarz, a devotee of baseball, hockey, basketball and tennis.
“My idol at the time was Donald Dell, a tennis player and contemporary of Arthur Ashe, the guy who started IMG, the mega-sports agent group,” he said. “It ended up representing a bunch of pro tennis players and then it mushroomed into this huge thing.”
His dream gained a little momentum during the 1970s as Schwarz did his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Schwarz’s then-brother-in-law was assistant coach and top recruiter for the University of Florida Gators men’s basketball team, a squad for which Schwarz served as manager. His brother-in-law in 1975 began recruiting Darrell Dawkins, aka “Chocolate Thunder,” a high school basketball wunderkind from Orlando’s Evans High School.
“In my mind, (Dawkins) was going to sign and play for the Gators,” said Schwarz, who regularly travelled with the team. “I had an ‘in.’ So my dream was, Dawkins was going to sign with the Gators; we were going to be national champions; and as I was finishing law school, I was going to groom (Dawkins) and he was going to be my first client.”
That dream evaporated, however, when Dawkins made the very unlikely leap from high school directly to the National Basketball Association, where he played for 14 years for several teams, most notably the Philadelphia 76ers. His signature move was the backboard shattering slam dunk.
“He goes to the pros, and I’m like, ‘Well, there it goes,’” Schwarz chuckled. “The Gators had nobody else of that kind of momentous talent that was going to be an ‘in.’”
So Schwarz shifted gears from Jerry Maguire to Perry Mason, the TV lawyer played by the late Raymond Burr.
“I loved the classes on constitutional law and criminal law and civil liberties,” he said.
Schwarz would complete an internship with the Gainesville Public Defender’s Office, and became hooked.
“We have a deep love of the work, a passion and commitment to represent people who are less fortunate in society,” Schwarz said of the public defender credo.
Upon graduation from law school, he sent 20 letters of interest to all 20 Florida public defenders’ offices, and the West Palm Beach division offered him a job in January of 1977.
“I went right into it,” Schwarz said. “I did appeals for the first six months and then moved into death penalty (cases).”
For the next five years, he did exclusively death penalty, post-conviction litigations on behalf of clients determined not to have the resources to defend themselves against charges. That included direct appeals, post-conviction relief, and federal habeas petitions to the U.S. Supreme Court. His office was dealing with 27 clients on Florida’s death row.
Notably, 1977 was the year after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the death penalty after it had been struck down in 1972.
“Death row was being flooded, again, with new, presumably constitutional, death-sentenced individuals,” Schwarz said. “It was all about challenging the convictions, the sentences and the procedure.”
Schwarz continues to have strong feelings about the death penalty and believes it should be abolished — for good. He said post-execution analysis of DNA and other evidence continues to exonerate some defendants who have been put to death.
“The reality is, our criminal justice system is a great system … but it’s not perfect,” Schwarz said. “With the death penalty, you can’t afford to make a mistake. Why risk it?”
He believes life in prison without parole is an appropriate maximum penalty and that as long as the United States continues to execute people, it will bear the same stigma as nations like China and North Korea that have earned dubious human rights records.
“We are one of the few remaining civilized, developed nations that still has the death penalty,” Schwarz said.
By 1982, Schwarz and his spouse wanted to move to a part of the country they felt would be more idyllic for raising a family. They chose Vermont, where Schwarz secured a job with the Chittenden County Public Defender’s Office. His first boss was Public Defender Michael Kupersmith. Schwarz was one of four attorneys in the office.
All of a sudden, Schwarz went from death penalty litigation to defending clients against drunken driving, disorderly conduct, retail theft and vandalism charges. Schwarz said many of them resorted to crime as a means of getting money for various alcohol and drug additions. Thankfully, murders have been few and far between.
“We might have 10 to 12 homicides in Vermont in a year,” Schwarz said. “That might be a bad month in West Palm Beach, Fla.”
He has enjoyed the relative infrequency of violent crime in Vermont.
“It was really in a lot of ways a breath of fresh air,” Schwarz said. “The stress was lower; you didn’t have to worry about your client dying. For a lawyer, that’s really a whole different level. The responsibility for someone’s liberty is one thing, but the responsibility for someone’s life is so much more serious and intense.”
He added the absence of death penalty cases in Vermont has contributed to a more cordial relationship among attorneys.
“It’s very hard to be collegial with attorneys on the other side who are seeking to kill your client,” Schwarz said.
Schwarz and his colleagues each carried an average caseload of 75 to 100 clients at any one time in the Burlington office, including felony, misdemeanor and juvenile cases. In 1991, Schwarz became managing attorney of the office, performing administrative chores in addition to his full case load.
In early 2006, Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio asked Schwarz to head up the Addison County office. The county’s public defender at the time was Lorin Duckman, who was about to take some medical leave. Living in Charlotte, Schwarz saw Middlebury as a reasonable commute.
Addison County became a permanent gig for Schwarz in April of 2006, when Valerio transferred Duckman to a unit of the office dealing with serious felony cases.
As Addison County public defender, Schwarz handles around 50 to 60 cases at any one time, as does his assistant, Jim Gratton — who will succeed Schwarz as top attorney. Gratton’s promotion will likely not take effect until July 1, in line with the state’s efforts to minimize personnel expenses. In the meantime, another attorney will likely be brought on to assist Gratton with the office workload, according to Schwarz.
It was earlier this year that Schwarz looked at the calendar and decided it made sense, on many fronts, for him to retire. He will turn 62 next month and now qualifies for maximum retirement benefits as a result of his longevity. And with nine years lawyering in Middlebury, he is believed to be the longest serving public defender in Addison County’s history. Work for indigent clients used to be farmed out to private attorneys.
Going into private practice to make more money never really resonated with Schwarz.
“The thought of keeping track of billable hours never appealed to me,” he said with a chuckle.
While Schwarz has enjoyed good health, he wants to make sure he enjoys some golden years, as his family’s medical history beyond 50 years is not very promising, he noted. He looks forward to spending more time with family and continuing to make sports trips with his buddies. For example, Schwarz rarely misses a college hockey “final four” tournament.
He will miss the vocation, but not a lot of the bureaucracy and budget problems that have gone with it. The state has been trying to reduce its judiciary expenses and has employed cost-cutting strategies that have included wage freezes, furloughs and rescissions.
“Budget pressure has been a constant theme,” Schwarz said. “The criminal justice system is always struggling with funding.”
The more time Schwarz and his family have spent in Vermont, the more confident they have been that they made the right decision to leave Florida in 1982.
“We have loved it here,” Schwarz said. “And public defender, as an institution, has a great deal of respect in this state. That wasn’t the case in Florida. We weren’t popular.”
He will keep fond memories of his time as a public defender.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, I have loved what I do, and not many people can say that,” Schwarz said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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