Walter Gerash

The Devil's Advocate

A jury trial, in Gerash's view, is a "highly ritualistic morality play," and he is relentless in his quest to fill the box with an audience that shares a rapport with him and feels empathy for his client. In 1959 he extracted a landmark decision from the Colorado Supreme Court halting the systematic exclusion of Spanish-surnamed citizens from jury duty; years later, in a second landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court, he won a decision that further expanded the selection process. It's all part of finding the right audience--and the right "theme"--for the defense at hand.

"The ideal juror depends on the case," Gerash says. "But you can't insult the jury; you have to come up with a defense they can run with. Self-defense. Heat of passion. You're obviously stuck with your client, with his or her personality. And the facts. Really, the facts ultimately decide the case, no matter how great the lawyer is."

Sometimes it's the absence of facts--such as the prosecution's inability to produce any physical evidence tying Jim King to the United Bank murders--that matters. But Gerash's job has gotten tougher over the years; he's understandably troubled by the shift to take power away from jurors--by, for example, having death-penalty rulings handed down by a panel of judges. In addition, juries are more conservative now, he says, "brainwashed since the Reagan era toward law and order," and judges are more impatient with his efforts to ferret out potential jurors' underlying biases.

"I now get a minute and a half or two minutes per juror, which is not enough time for me to say hello," he notes. "That really hurts."

As popular as he might be in the jury room, Gerash is no longer the media darling he once was. He tangled frequently with local reporters over the King case, denouncing the "smear campaign" against his client (which included a totally erroneous report in the News that King was the brother of two well-known hoodlums). When he defended Schmitz after attending funeral services for the gifted Lopez and stating that he wouldn't represent the culprit, his picture disappeared from the walls of the Denver Press Club.

Gerash's defense of himself is simple: Schmitz wasn't driving the car. As for King, Gerash has since collaborated with historian Phil Goodstein on a book setting forth his own version of the case, the just-published Murders in the Bank Vault. King himself remains a cipher; Gerash did not allow Goodstein to interview his client, who could still face federal charges in the case.

Aired live on Court TV, the King case introduced Gerash to a national audience. He keeps two framed mementos from the case on his mantel to remind him of the public's fickleness: a fan letter from a ten-year-old girl ("You're a very good lawyer so please don't retire") and an anonymous screed from the other camp ("Well you fucking Jew now that you've got all the stolen money you can take a vacation. Both your number is coming up you can bet on that").

The state's premier criminal lawyer is too busy to worry about what his critics think of him. Retirement is not in his vocabulary. "I like where the action is," he says. "I like the struggle. I went down to ten cases two years ago. All of a sudden I've got sixty--mostly civil. (And one fresh murder case. Last week Gerash picked up a new client, James Garner, arrested by Douglas County authorities as the sole suspect in the slaying of his wife and her parents.)

Gerash talks about taking time off to travel and write poetry, to crank out a book on "the social struggle in this community in the last forty years," but right now he has clients waiting. Expect him back in the courtroom soon, selling the system, the Big Five, the presumption of non-guilt. Not innocence, mind you, but non-guilt.

"No one is innocent," he says.
He'll settle for not guilty.

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