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By Joseph Tsidulko
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By Jill Stewart
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Schwartzbach, who declined to be interviewed, may look like a straight arrow, but his methods are often unorthodox. There was the time he coaxed a convicted murderer, who was facing the death penalty, into singing "Blue Suede Shoes" before the sentencing jury; in the early 1980s he helped pioneer the battered-wife defense, winning acquittal for a woman charged with murdering her San Francisco police-officer husband.
Robert Blake isn’t the kind of person normally found on Schwartzbach’s client list, which more often than not consists of the Bay Area’s underdog poor — he once toiled for indigent clients as a member of the Bayview-Hunters Point Community Defender and would later work at the law firm headed by the late Charles Garry, the Black Panther Party attorney. Schwartzbach’s first high-profile case was the defense of Stephen Bingham, the young lawyer accused, in 1971, of smuggling into San Quentin Prison a gun that triggered an escape attempt and resulted in six deaths, including that of celebrated radical George Jackson. Bingham had fled the country but in 1984 turned himself in to stand trial and, with Schwartzbach as his lead attorney, was acquitted in 1986.
"I can only say Gerry was wonderful," Bingham says in a phone interview. "He and his co-counsel, Susan Rutberg, integrated me into the whole process, and I felt very much a part of it. He wants his clients to feel really involved."
Rutberg, now a law professor at Golden Gate University, had worked with Schwartzbach at Bayview-Hunters Point. Like Bingham, she emphasizes Schwartzbach’s ability to completely immerse himself in a case’s details.
"He examines evidence 16 different ways," she told me. "He lives and breathes the case."
Even those on the other side of the court praise him.
"I have absolute admiration for him," says Karyn Sinunu, a San Jose deputy D.A. "He’s reasonable and smart. He’s what a trial attorney should be. Some people don’t live up to their reputation, but this guy does."
Although Sinunu has not faced Schwartzbach in court, she was part of the D.A. team handling a lengthy double-homicide case that became Santa Clara county’s most expensive. It ended when Schwartzbach won the freedom of one wrongly convicted suspect, Buddy Nickerson, who’d spent 19 years in prison.
But why would a lefty lawyer with Schwartzbach’s credentials defend Blake?
"He’s not in the twilight of his career," says Bingham, now a staff attorney for Bay Area Legal Aid. "For a criminal-defense attorney to represent someone [like Blake] helps establish him as one of the premier defense attorneys in the country. What motivates many lawyers is upholding the integrity of the criminal justice system and the constitution. It’s a tough case, and Gerry thrives on the tough cases."
Both Bingham and Sinunu say Blake, who has gone through three previous lawyers, has hired a formidable defender.
"I’m glad I’m not trying the case against him," Sinunu says.
"Scooby dooby doo . . . scooby dooby doo . . . " John Solari often breaks into this Sinatraic mantra during trial recesses as he paces the hallway or stares out the big windows at the San Fernando Valley. Solari, who speaks with a New York tough-guy accent, is the sometime actor with a criminal past who made news after Bakley’s death when he revealed how he’d suggested to Blake, at whose house he was living, that Blake allow him to arrange a hit on Bakley.
"I’ll tell you one thing," Solari said about his proposed hit, "it woulda turned out different if Robert had turned to me. With my background? Italian, organized crime, 16 years in Attica?" Solari is about Blake’s age and his mane of sandy hair and boxer’s nose give him a somewhat leonine appearance. He has been attending every preliminary hearing and trial date, traveling to court by bus.
"If Mesereau was Robert’s lawyer this thing would’ve been over with by now," Solari told me. "But Robert’s running everything — he’s a control freak."
Blake, who is under house arrest on $1.5 million bail, sits attentively but stonefaced in court, dressed in a dark suit. Hank Fisher, the mall singer, says sometimes Blake will slip away from his legal entourage for a smoke outside the courthouse — the two have a running joke that goes back to the time Fisher loaned Blake his cigarette lighter.
Samuels’ first witness was Sean Stanek, the man whom Blake begged to call 911 after, Blake told him, he found Bakley bleeding in his car from a mugging. The 40-ish, goateed Stanek, a low-budget film director and production manager, no doubt reminded many in the audience of themselves — or how they might have responded on the night of May 4, 2001, when Bakley was shot after she and Blake left Vitello’s restaurant in Studio City. Most empathetically followed Stanek’s story of Good Samaritan instincts tempered by a feeling that the crisis was being dumped in his lap by Blake — who’d appeared on his doorstep shouting and ringing the doorbell, but who quickly took off for Vitello’s, two doors away, instead of waiting by his wife’s side.