| Magazine Feature |

Law and Order

World-class trial lawyer Michael Schwartz attributes his success to the Ultimate Judge

Photos: Family archives, Nate Taylor, AP Images

If a picture is worth a thousand words, that’s without taking into account the heightened impact of an incriminating video. But world-class attorney Michael Schwartz —  a winner of many high-profile cases in which he has successfully defended police officers accused of disproportionate violence and even manslaughter — credits the Ultimate Judge while proving time and again that the screen isn’t always the full view

From the perspective of the defense, the video couldn’t have been worse: Off-duty, unarmed Air Force policeman Elio Carrion lies sprawled on the ground in front of a car. Hulking Deputy Sheriff Ivory Webb stands a few feet away, his gun trained on Carrion.

“Get up! Get up!” Webb orders.

Carrion responds, “Okay, I’m getting up.”

As he begins to comply, Webb suddenly shoots him three times; Carrion falls back, moaning.

“Why’d you shoot him? Why’d you shoot?” Carrion’s friend shouts in shock from the car. “That’s messed up, he was getting up!”

The year was 2007, and this was the first time a video of a cop shooting a civilian had gone viral, thanks to the ubiquity of the internet.

It was defense attorney Michael Schwartz’s job to defend Webb against the San Bernardino district attorney’s charges of attempted voluntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon. If he failed, Webb would spend 18 years in prison.

“When I saw the video for the first time, my heart dropped to my stomach,” Michael later recalled.

After four weeks of analysis and dissection of the video, the jury began their deliberations at 9:30 a.m. At about 11:00 a.m., Michael got a call: The verdict was in.

“I was in L.A. having brunch with my wife — never in my wildest dreams did I think the verdict would come that fast,” he says. The crowd in San Bernardino Superior Court  waited while Michael battled traffic for three hours, singing niggunim to relieve his anxiety.

When Michael arrived, he found the courtroom overflowing with reporters and cameras from every large television station and media outlet; spectators spilled out into the hallway. Security officers were everywhere — the country had seen nothing like this before, and they were preparing for violence.

“It would have taken a chainsaw to cut the tension in that room,” Michael says.

Finally, the clerk read the first verdict: “We, the jury… find the defendant… not guilty of the crime of attempted voluntary manslaughter.”

Webb sat immobile, and Michael began muttering under his breath, “Thank You, Hashem, thank You, Hashem, thank You, Hashem.”

Seconds later the next verdict was announced: “We, the jury… find the defendant… not guilty of the crime of assault….”

Michael pounded the table hard again and again, his words loud enough to be heard now. THANK YOU, HASHEM! Webb grabbed him in a bear hug, both of them overcome with emotion.

And the multitudes who’d seen the incriminating video were left wondering, How on earth did Schwartz just do that?

Defense attorney Michael Schwartz after a high-profile police acquittal with the cards stacked against him. “It would have taken a chainsaw to cut the tension in that room”

Fast Track

IN the 1960s, Long Island was the suburban destination for the throngs fleeing New York City in search of a home and a backyard. The town of Kings Park became home to second-generation Italian and Irish families, but it also had a small Jewish population, Michael’s family among them. He and his older sister Karyn fit right in with the Timmys and Giannas of their close-knit neighborhood; religion meant Hebrew school three times a week, until Michael “graduated” at his bar mitzvah. After that, it was reduced to bagels and lox, matzah balls, and an electric menorah.

Michael’s penchant for proving his case was already evident in kindergarten.

“I used to draw the number four with a closed top, and my teacher, Mrs. Smulyan, wanted me to do it ‘properly,’ with an open top,” he says. “She tried to convince me that her way was faster. I challenged her to a contest to see who could draw a four more quickly on the blackboard, and I won. She told my mom I’d be a great lawyer one day.”

Law school actually did percolate in the back of Michael’s mind throughout high school and college, but there were so many other “careers” he chose to experience first: dishwasher, pantry chef, and waiter in restaurants; college television set builder; bartender; bar manager; construction worker; videographer; auto-parts delivery boy; television program coordinator; cameraman — all by the age of 28. Throw in his past and current hobbies — amateur historian, cook, sailor, scuba diver, poetry writer, book author — and you begin to understand the polymath that is Michael Schwartz.

After majoring in broadcast communications, Michael aimed for the top of the broadcast television pyramid. He worked for some of the biggest national networks, including ABC, CNN, and Cablevision. As program coordinator for a cable network, he worked in the control room, responsible for the timing of airing commercials and show segments. The skills he developed there would feature prominently in his future.

But to a roving mind like Michael’s, even broadcast television gets boring quickly, and in 1990, after three years in the industry, he found himself in Washington, D.C., as a student at George Washington University’s National Law Center.

When Michael was offered a summer internship in San Francisco before his last year of law school, it sounded like a great vacation opportunity, and he figured he might also learn a little law on the side. But the joke was on him; he fell in love with the Bay area, made connections in the district attorney’s office, and a year later, flew back out to take the bar in California, qualifying him to practice law in the state. His first job was in the public defender office in Ventura County as a court-appointed defense attorney for those who couldn’t pay for a lawyer.

Michael’s career barreled forward at lightning pace — he was elevated from misdemeanor trials to felony trials in the shortest time anyone there can remember, going back 50 years. After a stint in the Public Defender Office in Riverside County, he worked for two private firms specializing in cop defense, and then three years ago, at age 56, he took a long-anticipated plunge and opened The Michael Schwartz Firm. It’s a one-man operation that handles all kinds of litigation, though the most likely client to visit his office in Koreatown, Los Angeles is a cop — because in the world of cop defense, Michael Schwartz is a legend. In the 20 years he’s been defending police officers in a liberal state considered anti-cop, he’s won 17 out of the 20 cases that went to trial, an outstanding record.

One Way

Michael’s flourishing law career is only part of the kaleidoscope of his life. He and his wife Tzipporah live with their three daughters and two sons, all teens and young adults, in the heart of frum Los Angeles. How that came to be is a story of its own.

About two years after moving to California, while back east visiting his family, a friend suggested they visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

“We entered a large square room, and in its center stood a glass case with an unrolled, defiled sefer Torah inside, with German writing all over it,” he says. “To this day I can’t really describe what happened, but something inside of me cracked. I started crying uncontrollably. My whole body shook, and I couldn’t move my legs. My friend helped me to a bench, and I recovered a bit. After a while I walked back up to the sefer Torah, and the same thing happened again.”

Michael, 29 at the time, found the experience frightening, and very confusing. Pictures of doomed people, piles of human possessions… those should have been far more disturbing than a religious object. He didn’t connect to religion at all.

As soon as he got back to his parents’ house, he dug up his old tefillin, buried in his bedroom closet and untouched in the 16 years since his bar mitzvah. He brought them back to California, retaught himself Hebrew, and sporadically davened with them in his apartment.

“If I’d had that reaction to gruesome images, I would have considered it a normal human response, and gone on with my life. But the message came to me through a sefer Torah, and I had no choice but connect it to my being a Jew,” he says.

Over the next year and a half, as he worked overtime and racked up successes at the Public Defender’s Office, he filled his downtime giving poetry readings, coaching mock trial competitions in a local high school, volunteering as a Big Brother… and exploring Judaism in earnest. Seems impossible? “I was single,” he says with a shrug.

His interest in Judaism slowly evolved from a curiosity to an enthusiasm to an obsession. Evenings and early mornings were spent devouring every Jewish book he could get his hands on.

“The first book that really pushed me forward was Derech Hashem with an explanation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. I read it in two days, and then read it again,” he says.

Michael waded into everything from the ArtScroll Gemara to Mesillas Yesharim, but Rabbi Kaplan’s writings impacted him most profoundly.

“I had no idea Judaism had depth and spirituality. I truly thought it was all about cold adherence to ritual, the Holocaust, and matzah balls.”

But while Michael was fully engaged in the theoretical aspects of Judaism, he hadn’t crossed the bridge into practice — until he received a request that was presented to him like a Divinely wrapped gift.

“I had established a relationship with an Orthodox rabbi in Ventura,” he says. “One day the rabbi asked me a favor. There was a frum family in L.A. who ran a flower business near Ventura, and they had to leave L.A. each morning before the first Shacharis minyan. They asked the rabbi if he could cobble together a daily Shacharis minyan in Ventura, and he was wondering if I’d be willing to commit.

“Suddenly, I was driving a half hour each morning to daven with a minyan — I was the tenth man, and couldn’t let them down.”

He subsequently developed a close friendship with one of the business owners, Jeff, and would spend Shabbos once or twice  a month with his family.

The next arrow pointing him home came in the form of two American Indians: Buzz Berry, from the Siletz tribe in Oregon, and Jim “White Wolf” French, a Cherokee Indian and respected leader in the local Native American scene.

One winter day in 1996, Buzz Berry and his friend Paul Skyhorse were pulled over by a Ventura sheriff for a broken taillight. A search of their van turned up 250 pounds of peyote (worth about $4,500), a cactus with psychoactive properties similar to those in hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Sale and possession of peyote is illegal in the US — unless you have a Native American Tribal Card, which allows you to purchase peyote authorization papers. For Native Americans, peyote is a “sacred,” (i.e., a religious item) used by medicine men for healing, and thus legal. When they got pulled over, Paul and Buzz were on their way back to Washington State from Texas, having bought peyote there on behalf of their reservation. However, while they both had legitimate Tribal Cards, they were lazy and had bought fraudulent peyote authorization papers instead of applying for legal ones.

To complicate matters, Paul had a legal history: as an accused murderer (he was acquitted), and as a felon convicted and jailed for bank robbery. The fraudulent papers were purchased in another state, so technically California had no jurisdiction to hold onto the peyote — but the police weren’t releasing what they viewed as drugs to a guy like that. The case ended up in court.

“I had a reputation as a trial hound and court junkie, and because of my newfound interest in religion and First Amendment issues, you couldn’t keep me away from the case,” Michael says. He asked to be assigned as their counsel, hoping to force the sheriff to return the “sacreds” to the braided and befeathered duo.

“The case was a cause célèbre,” Michael says. “For the two weeks it was pending, the courthouse courtyard came alive every lunch hour with Indian prayer ceremonies. The beating of drums and rhythmic chanting could be heard in all the offices nearby. The courtyard was crammed with news reporters, Indian sympathizers, and gawkers.”

The morning of the hearing, Michael thought of what his rabbi had told him: There are no coincidences. This case landed in my lap for a reason. Here I am defending the right of these people to practice their religion while I’m in the midst of exploring my own.

In the courtroom, the prosecution argued for a third continuance (postponement), this time for an entire month. Next to Michael, Skyhorse and Buzz were reaching their breaking point. Too long in the evidence lockers, they knew, and the peyote would rot.

Suddenly Buzz stood up, reached into his briefcase, pulled out a cactus bud, and held it high for all to see. The courtroom was packed, but his eyes never left the judge’s.

“This is what you’re all arguing about,” he said. “You call it drugs, we call it sacreds. We use them to pray, no different than your using wine or incense. You want us to respect you, you have to respect us! You have your path, we have ours.”

His words electrified the room — you could hear a pin drop. And then it was over. A week later, the judge announced he’d release the peyote the next day at noon.

Michael remembers Buzz’s taut, leathery face as he addressed the court.

“The room had no windows, but to this day when I picture it, there was a beam of light coming from somewhere, and it lit up his face. I think it was the light of confidence, of knowing who you are and that what you’re doing is right.”

After the peyote was returned, Michael was in the parking lot of the courthouse when White Wolf embraced him and handed him an eagle feather.

“This is for warriors. That’s you. You gave us back our heritage today. You’re Jewish, and you’ve got a 3,000-year-old heritage. Ours was taken from us, and we’re trying to rebuild it. Yours is still there. Go learn about you.”

Buzz’s display of unabashed pride in who he was — his steely confidence in a room full of white people who looked at him as other, strange — was a pivotal moment for Michael. While his interest in Judaism had been steadily growing, he hadn’t yet found the courage to embrace the role of “other” in society. But in the weeks and months ahead, Buzz’s impassioned address, as well as White Wolf’s parting words, resonated deeply, and his exploration of Judaism took on greater intensity.

When Michael told his friend Jeff that he was ready for a fuller immersion into frum life, the latter introduced him to Dick Horowitz, cofounder of Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles.

“Dick was impressed with my oratory skills, and he made me a deal,” Michael recalls. “He’d send me to Aish HaTorah in Israel gratis. If I’d eventually go back to practicing law, I’d owe him the tuition money retroactively, but if I’d put my skills to use as a rabbi, I’d be debt-free.”

In 1999, at age 34, Michael booked a one-way flight to Israel to study at Aish HaTorah. His growth in Yiddishkeit was explosive. But as he contemplated his return to the States, he was concerned about the best way to integrate his spiritual gains into life back at home. He sought guidance from Rabbi Mordechai Sheinberger, a mekubal in the Old City of Jerusalem.

“He was sitting at his dining room table, and I was immediately struck by how strikingly blue and alive his eyes were,” Michael says. “I thought he’d give me something hard to do, like immersing in the mikveh multiple times a day. But all he said was, ‘Find a nice Jewish girl and build a nice Jewish family.’ That, I thought, was doable.”

The Rav also requested that Michael join his daily Shacharis minyan at the Kosel as well as his weekly shiur. In doing so, Michael forged a connection with the Rav that added a strong charge to his spiritual growth. He came back home four months later fully religious (and repaid Aish HaTorah in full).

(In 2006, while davening Minchah at the Kosel on a short trip to Israel, Michael had the sudden sensation of being watched. He looked up to find a familiar pair of piercing blue eyes gazing at him. “Schvartz?” the man said. It was Rabbi Sheinberger — they had lost touch years before, but the Rav knew exactly who he was. With a wide smile on his face, he told Michael, “Watch, this is going to be a wonderful year for you.” That same year, Michael’s fourth child was born and he won the Ivory Webb case, the catalyst for his tremendous professional success.)

Shortly after his return from Israel, Michael started shidduch dating, and a shadchan suggested he meet Tzipporah, a fashion designer who was in California visiting family.

“I called her, and we scheduled a date for 8 p.m. one night that week. After we hung up, I realized the date was set for Lag B’omer, and I already had plans with some friends to make a bonfire on the beach at exactly eight o’clock. I called her back and asked if we could go out earlier that day instead, but from her reaction, I could tell she thought I sounded like a flake, so I told her I’d drop my other plans. After schmoozing for a bit on the phone, I said to her, ‘I can tell you’re the one.’ She was shocked into silence for a moment, and then she said, ‘That’s kind of fast.’ But I was sold on her laugh — it was so genuine,” he says.

Michael’s intuition was on target, and they’ve been together ever since, raising their five kids, first in the Pico-Robertson section of L.A., later moving to La Brea/Hancock Park. While Michael confers a cerebral bent to the family atmosphere, Tzipporah’s artistic tendencies — she teaches art at a local day school — provide a solid counterbalance.

“You need a plan A, but also plans B, C, and D. If you can move between strategies and know your facts cold, you have a very good chance of winning your case.” In defense of Luke Liu

Crux of the Case

IF you’re assuming Michael must be a highly polished, fiery orator who wows the court with a charismatic performance and never fumbles over a word, think again. His charisma is born from confidence, not pizzazz, and he speaks in everyday, conversational English. His natural, authentic presentation to the jury makes his delivery all the more appealing.

A track record like Michael’s is the domain of a select few. He repeatedly attributes his success to siyata d’Shmaya, but when pressed to explain what skills allow a trial attorney to successfully defend the seemingly indefensible time after time after time, he shares his take.

“A trial is a living, breathing thing,” he explains. “There’s an energy you can tap into, and when you’re in the zone, you can influence and even direct that energy in your favor.”

There are critical trial skills he says every litigator should have: Be able to think on your feet. Don’t be constrained by a script. Know your facts cold. (Michael was primed from the ’hood: “Growing up in working class New York, we had to think on our feet and be equally quick with a comeback,” he says.) And if there’s evidence that works against you, find a way to deflate it by turning it into a friend.

“You need a plan A, but also plans B, C, and D. If you have a set of strategies with flexibility to move around between them, and you know your facts cold, you have a very good chance of winning your case,” he says.

To allow himself that flexibility, Michael hasn’t written out cross exam questions in 20 years.

“My approach is more intuitive than planned,” he says.

But he memorizes the minute, seemingly irrelevant details of the case; an overlooked detail often ends up being the key to victory.

Any video involving police violence is automatically a steep, uphill battle.

“Force never looks good on video,” he says. “A video snippet never tells the whole story, and it doesn’t account for emotions, both of which skew it against the police officer. My job is to turn a damaging video into a tool for us.”

In Michael’s stint in broadcast television control rooms, he learned to visually attend to many screens at once — each with its own ticking clock — and to absorb numerous details in a short amount of time. It’s those skills he now uses to flip the most damaging evidence against his clients to their advantage, as he breaks down video and identifies tiny but crucial details — lighting, camera angle, timing of action sequences — that others might miss.

In the first case Michael tried after going solo in 2021, the harrowing video presented by the prosecution seemed inarguably straightforward: A cop named Luke Liu tried to question the driver of a car he believed had been stolen. The uncooperative driver began driving away, so the cop shot him four times and killed him.

“As I listened to the prosecutor’s opening statement, I realized that he completely misunderstood the video — what he thought was a sequence of events was really one event shot from two different cameras, at different angles,” Michael says. “Once that was established, it became clear that the story he built never occurred. By using a split-screen camera, breaking the video in tenth-of-a-second frames, and studying the bullets’ trajectories and their paths through the driver’s body, I was able to show the jury two things: that the driver was trying to run my client over, and my client reasonably believed the driver was reaching for a gun.”

It took less than a day for the jury to find Michael’s client innocent.

He recounts case after case, and his success in each one boiled down to his mastery of these skills. Take the Kelly Thomas case: In 2011, police in Fullerton, California, received a call about a man vandalizing cars. Cops arrived at the scene, and the vandal, Kelly Thomas, refused to be searched, resulting in an altercation. Video footage shows an unarmed Thomas on the ground being subdued and beaten by a few cops. For three long minutes, the audio is excruciating: Thomas cries out for his mother, for G-d to help him, that he can’t breathe. He was eventually taken to the hospital where he fell into a coma, and he was taken off life support five days later.

“For the two and a half years the case was pending, this was a huge national story,” Michael says. “Headlines declared straight out that my client killed Thomas, and there were weekly protests at the site of the incident. I was portrayed as the devil incarnate for defending a killer cop — public opinion across the country was completely against us — and I was skewered and roasted daily on a popular California radio show. For the five weeks of the trial, the courtroom was packed with reporters and citizens who hated us.”

Against this backdrop, Michael had to convince the jury of one very difficult thing: that his client, police officer Jay Cicinelli, didn’t contribute to Thomas’ death. According to the coroner, causes of death were asphyxiation (oxygen deprivation) and blows to the head. Anyone watching the video could see Cicenelli lying on top of Thomas and repeatedly pummeling him on the head. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force. Lying on top of him, three medical experts testified, caused chest compression which slowly asphyxiated Thomas, and the blows to his face caused blood to enter his lungs and choke him.

Michael demonstrates how flexibility, knowing the facts of the case cold, and proper video analysis helped him win the case.

The prosecution planned to put an FBI use-of-force expert on the stand, and Michael had prepared an outline for his cross-examination. The expert shared with the jury the conditions that justified use of force.

Michael remembers, “I saw in a flash how I could use his testimony, and I completely reworked my cross exam on the spot.”

When it was his turn to speak, he first played up the expert’s credentials, leaving no doubt that he was an authority on use of force. He then proceeded, point by point, to show that his client met every one of the expert’s conditions. “I used his own reasoning against him, one fact at a time, until his entire testimony was evidence in my client’s favor.”

His medical experts discredited the coroner’s claim that Thomas died of asphyxiation by proving that if Thomas was screaming, he had more than enough oxygen to live; Thomas’ sensation of not being able to breathe was most likely the beginning of a heart attack that ultimately killed him.

“With Hashem in charge, I went after the coroner with no notes; one radio commentator called it the best one-two punch he’d seen in 25 years of covering trials.”

Then he turned the video into a tool in his favor. By breaking it down into ultra-short segments, Michael showed that Thomas kept reaching for Cicinelli’s taser, and what looked like punches was actually Cicinelli trying to untangle the taser wires to allow more slack and keep it out of Thomas’s hands. He showed that Cicinelli threw just two punches to Thomas’s face, each one in direct response to Thomas’s attempts to grab his weapon. What looked gruesome at first glance was not just reasonable, but necessary.

“This was the most high-profile case of my career, and winning it after two-and-a-half years of hard work and nonstop, intense negativity was very emotional,” Michael says.

When it came to Ivory Webb, the case seemed even more stark: How can someone who is heard on video telling an unarmed man on the ground to get up, then shoots him when he starts to comply, stand a chance of being acquitted?

“I knew with certainty that Ivory had truly been afraid for his life — he told me he thought he’d never see his wife or son again. But why he told Carrion to get up right before shooting him was puzzling to both Ivory and me. It was the most troubling part of the video, and Ivory had no recollection of saying it (as commonly happens to people in high-stress situations).

“One day I was driving down the freeway asking Hashem to send me a theory to explain it, when out of the blue, a clip I’d seen as a kid on the slapstick comedy show Abbott and Costello popped into my head. In the scene, Costello was afraid of something and he tried to scream, but his throat became paralyzed and no words came out. It suddenly occurred to me that Ivory most likely meant to say, ‘Don’t get up,’ but like Costello, the word ‘don’t’ got stuck in his throat due to fear. When Carrion got up, Ivory thought he was disobeying his order. This is how I explained the most incriminating line in the video.”

(Webb didn’t recall issuing the order at all, so it was up to Michael to reconstruct the events based on the videos and testimonies.)

When Michael broke the video into tenth-of-a-second frames for the jury, he showed that at the exact second Carrion said, “I’m getting up,” his hand seemed to disappear into his jacket pocket; it looked to Ivory like he was going for a gun. By putting the jury in Ivory’s shoes and flushing out the fear factor, Michael won the case.

In truth, Michael starts cultivating his win before the jury is even selected. “Voir dire” is the process in which lawyers choose jurors from a pool of potential candidates, and he utilizes the time to “project and connect.” Projecting means planting seeds in jurors’ minds with questions like: “Are you a first impression person? The prosecution goes first in trial, so does that mean the defense won’t have a fair chance?” and, “You may see a difficult video; will you be able to put your emotions aside and look at it as a piece of evidence in a puzzle?”

And he makes sure to connect. He relates to the jurors naturally, and tells them he’s trusting them to be fair, because decent people, he knows, want to honor that trust. “You hope that by the time the trial comes, they’re primed to see things a certain way,” he says. “In the trial itself, the lawyer only gets to speak directly to the jury twice — during the opening statement and closing argument — so voir dire is an underappreciated opportunity to appeal to the future jury’s minds and hearts.

Quirks and Perks

Law enforcement officials tend to be conservative, religious, and have wholesome family values, Michael says, so the judges, sheriffs, and cops he defends generally respect him for his open religiosity. His unusual court attire — large black yarmulke, tzitzis hanging out of his waistband — helps promote a memorable persona that he believes is good for business (although that’s not why he wears them). It also creates moments of humor and poignancy.

A court reporter once approached him during a break.

“I thought she was coming to tell me to talk slower,” he says. “Instead, she handed me a pair of scissors and said, ‘You have strings hanging down from your suit; cut them off before the jury comes back.’ I told her not to worry, it was part of my costume.”

Then there was the judge who called him into his chambers. He looked as gentile as they come: 6’2”, 200 pounds of muscle, a huge, machete-like knife displayed on his desk.

“Can I tell you something?” he said. “I’m a bad Jew. I don’t keep Shabbos or kosher. I grew up on the Lower East Side, but when we moved out of New York, we left our Judaism behind. I see you with your yarmulke and tassels and I feel so guilty.”

“Maybe when the trial’s over you’ll come to us for Shabbos. You’re not bad, you just need to learn more,” Michael responded.

“I like that, thank you,” the judge replied. His Jewish spirit now awakened, for the rest of the trial, the judge slipped in every Jewish-sounding word he knew, from telling the jury to “go get a nosh” to mentioning that he “kibbitzed with the lawyers.”

Michael’s formidable trial skills come with a power switch, and until it’s turned on, he won’t make a move. Before every opening argument, every cross exam, every closing, he makes a shehakol and takes a sip of water. (If he’s thirsty a half hour earlier, he’ll wait to drink, so that he can make the brachah immediately prior to addressing the court.) When he gets up to speak for any other reason, he prays in his own words.

His go-to tefillos: “If a good outcome is possible, please don’t let me mess things up. Please let me make a kiddush Hashem. I know there’s only one Judge, and it’s not the one up there on the bench.

“I’m constantly muttering, and my clients often ask me what I’m saying. When I tell them I’m praying, they like it.”

In one case, there had been multiple delays for a lengthy hearing, and the date was finally set for Shavuos. He asked the judge if they could have one more postponement, and he agreed, but stated it would be the absolute last one. Though Michael had asked for the hearing to be any day other than Friday, it was accidentally set for Friday, and there was nothing Michael could do.

“For the next few days, each time I davened, I prayed for just one thing: ‘Please, Hashem, let me finish by two forty-five, be in my car by three, and home by four to get ready for Shabbos.’ ” He knew his request wasn’t that reasonable — with typical Friday afternoon traffic, the commute should take closer to two hours — but didn’t see another way out.

The hearing got off to a late start, and by midmorning Michael was so tense, he wondered if he should pray for the sun to stand still. And then just as the court came to order, the clerk made an announcement. “The judge asked me to inform you that he has a dinner meeting in L.A., so we will be going dark at exactly two forty-five, whether we’re finished or not.” And just like that, the hearing ended at 2:45, Michael was in his car by 3:00, and he walked through his front door at exactly 4:10.

From his perch, Michael observes the zeitgeist of the country regarding law enforcement’s use of force — and in his view, it isn’t always equitable.

“It’s really basic, but many people — particularly on the liberal coasts — just don’t get it: If someone is coming at you with force, you can use even greater force to defend yourself,” he says. This is all the more necessary for cops, who don’t have the option of escaping like civilians do, because it’s their job to subdue and arrest the offender.

“Police are feeling besieged, and they hesitate to proactively search out crimes, not wanting to get in trouble with their department or with the public,” he says. He cites former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s policy of arresting subway turnstile jumpers, on the premise that individuals who commit “small” crimes are the same ones who commit more serious crimes. The city experienced a significant drop in crime under his tenure.

He says social media has sensationalized cop aggression to the point that people believe it’s endemic within the law enforcement apparatus — yet that’s patently unfounded. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2020 there were about 54 million police-civilian contacts. Yet only the tiniest fraction of annual contacts involves officers shooting civilians — roughly 1,100 civilians are shot and killed by cops per year — and the large majority of those shootings, according to a 2019 FBI report, are to defend themselves or others from assault.

“If I can’t stomach what someone did, I won’t take the case,” Michael says. “But I believe that the cops I’ve defended all acted within the parameters of their training and tactics and deserved to be acquitted.”

If he could change one thing about the criminal justice system, it would be the socioeconomic bias that favors the wealthy. The District Attorney and US Attorney (prosecutors on behalf of the government) have unlimited resources to prosecute — the government will stop at nothing to go after someone in its sights, so unless someone is very wealthy, it’s an uneven playing field. For true criminal justice, Michael says, every defendant needs access to resources that are equal to those available to the prosecution.

Former police offier Jay Cicinelli, left, and Michael Schwartz listen to closing arguments. “This was the most high-profile case of my career, and winning it after two and a half years of nonstop, intense negativity was very emotional”

Never Alone

IF there’s one prism through which Michael views his life, it’s that of Hashgachah pratis. He sees it everywhere — in which judge is assigned to which case, in the precise timing of cases coming his way, in the random people he meets, in doors opening up exactly when needed.

During his last year of law school, having determined that he wanted to move to California, he sent his résumé to dozens of Public Defender Offices there. Their answers were unanimous: Come back to us when you pass the bar. Almost a year later, while waiting for the bar results, he prepared a stack of résumés to resend to those offices; the minute he passed the bar, they were in the mail.

Just a few days later, Michael got a call from the Ventura County Public Defender Office: One of their attorneys had a long-term medical emergency, and they needed to fill her position ASAP. “If you want a shot at the job, be here tomorrow, because the job won’t wait for you,” he was told. He jumped on a plane and got the job the next day.

The backstory: In the Ventura office, the assistant public defender needed to find to find a fill-in fast. She approached her file cabinet bulging with résumés, randomly moved her hand to the S section, and pulled one out. As she stood there looking it over, the big boss walked in. “A résumé just came in, GWU grad, he says he reached out to us a year ago, what do you think?”

“Michael Schwartz?” she responded. “I’m holding the one he sent in last year in my hand.”

Without looking any further — his résumé was impressive — they offered him an interview.

That’s how Michael ended up in Ventura, where he providentially met some of the most significant people in his life: his wife, the people who were mekarev him, and the senior attorney at a cop defense law firm who later hired him and helped him launch the career of a lifetime.

One of his favorite stories of Divine Providence occurred during the Ivory Webb case. A case this high profile by rights should have gone to Michael’s boss, one of the firm’s senior attorneys. But Michael had been on call the night of the shooting, and when he showed up at the scene, Ivory bonded with him and asked him to continue as his counsel (“Although his family didn’t want me, they thought I seemed too quiet,” he recalls.).

The timing couldn’t have been better: The Schwartzes were struggling financially, and a case like this one, that seemingly appeared out of nowhere, had the potential to really catapult his career.

“I told my wife that this case was just as important to us as it was to Ivory,” he says.

Michael’s boss became his second chair on the case, and the odd role reversal led to an unspoken competition between them.

“If I came in at seven, the next morning, my boss would be there at six. We also took very different approaches to the case, which added to the friction.”

Despite their differences, out of deference to his boss, Michael offered him the job of cross-examining the prosecution’s expert witness, and his boss prepared for it for months.

The case proceeded well for Michael, but then the prosecution’s last witness, an expert in police officer use of force, delivered a dangerous blow. The defense was in trouble, and the cross-examination was now critical to rehabilitating the case.

“My boss, Bill, started his cross-exam, and soon we broke for lunch,” Michael says. “I was on the phone with my wife, who was in her ninth month, when Bill rushed over, frantically gesturing for me to hang up. ‘You have to take over the cross-exam,’ he said.

“It was crazy. Bill had prepared for this for months — he’d obsessed over every detail. But he was going through some personal difficulties at the time, and he just didn’t feel on top of his game — and the case was too important for the firm to lose. With just one hour to show time, I laid out Bill’s notes and started strategizing.” He had 60 minutes to figure out how to cross-examine a witness who’d just overturned his entire case.

As the jury took their seats, Michael made a shehakol and sent up a prayer. “Hashem, You know I didn’t ask for this cross-exam; I gave it to Bill to show him respect. Please don’t let me look like a fool.”

A minute later, the bailiff made an announcement. “Unfortunately, the judge is delayed at a doctor’s appointment, and we’re going dark until Thursday. Court adjourned.”

Two days later, Michael was primed and ready to take on the prosecution’s expert. Cops across the country were following the case, and no one thought Michael had a chance. When he won it, he became an instant household name in the California police orbit. A week later he was flown to New York to appear as a guest on NBC’s Today show, and his career took a leap as more high-profile police cases landed on his desk.

The Hashgachah stories flow like an open tap; of all that Michael has to share, they are what animate him most. Toward the end of his stint at Aish HaTorah, it became clear that in order to maintain his newfound identity as a religious Jew, Michael needed to make a clean break from Ventura — the relationships and haunts of his old life would be a pull in the wrong direction. But his job was there — and he really needed a job.

He davened… and then got a phone call. His three mentors in the Ventura Public Defender office had all moved the Public Defender’s Office in Riverside County. Would he like to join them there? He did, of course, and it was exactly the kind of fresh start he was seeking.

He describes a federal case where the jury was the worst he ever saw, and the judge was a nightmare. The case wasn’t going in his favor, and his client faced a 50-year prison sentence. The judge was on vacation while the jury deliberated, and after just one day, they messaged the substitute judge that they were hung (criminal cases need a unanimous verdict, and they were missing one vote to convict). The prosecutor argued for the jury to continue deliberating; Michael argued for a mistrial. The substitute judge couldn’t reach the presiding judge for direction, so he took matters into his own hands and declared a mistrial.

“Within five minutes, the presiding judge called back, but it was too late,” Michael recalls. “Considering how briefly the jury deliberated, he certainly would have sent them back to try again, and I believe we would have lost the case — the one juror who was holding out would probably have caved. We were saved by those five minutes.”

Having learned from the first trial, he adopted a whole new strategy, and despite a judge who ruled against him at every turn, Michael won the case.

The Whole Man

Michael’s time out of court is as productive as his time in it. He exercises most mornings, and has daily learning sedorim in Mishnayos, Daf Yomi, Tomer Devorah, and, best of all, a phone chavrusa learning Gemara with his son. He learns his favorite sefer, Chovos Helevavos, on a weekly basis, as well as seforim on the parshah and bitachon. He’s taught a weekly “Intro to Judaism” class in his home, and his Shabbos table can be credited with bringing at least six people back to teshuvah.

About a year ago he published a book, Trial, and the Art of Sailing, a guide to help attorneys navigate trial advocacy (it’s a fun read for laypeople, too). On the lighter side, he’s written a soon-to-be-published novel called The Medicine Pouch, inspired by the peyote case. He also writes and disseminates weekly divrei chizuk based on the parshah. “And on a really lucky day, I sail,” he says.

One of his children has expressed interest in becoming a litigator, but he prefers they choose something else, because it’s tough to always be adversarial. His wife says she’s at a disadvantage because he’s trained to win arguments, but Michael insists that sometimes he wins just because he’s right. But he agrees that once your mind is trained to think a certain way, little can be done to undo it.

“When my kids were little and tried to get out of trouble by giving me a long story, I cut them off and make them answer some pointed questions first. I’d tell them I’m not cross-examining them, it’s just the way I’m used to gathering information,” he says. Sometimes he’d resort to, “I cross-examine people for a living — we both know I’ll get the truth out of you at the end. It’ll be better for you if you just come clean up front.”

And for a Schwartz-style family bonding experience, the dinner table becomes the courtroom, his family the jury, and Michael is… Michael.

“I pepper them with the facts, and then share my approach to the case. Their reactions help me gauge how convincing my argument will be to a jury.”

Just a few weeks ago, Michael got a call from the Chabad rabbi in San Bernardino County, who told him the following story. A newly religious inmate in a Victorville, California, prison reached out to this rabbi’s son requesting that someone come show him how to put on tefillin. When the rabbi’s son showed up, he wasn’t allowed entry because he isn’t a registered chaplain. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer and insisted on speaking with the prison warden himself.

“My understanding is that you’re an Orthodox Jew and you’re here to practice religious rites with an inmate — is that correct?” the warden asked.

“It is,” the rabbi’s son answered.

“You have full permission to do so. I’ll escort you to the cell myself,” he offered. “You see, a few years ago my son was accused of a terrible crime and faced eight years in prison. We hired a lawyer who was an Orthodox Jew — his name was Michael Schwartz — and he got my son a great deal, just six months in county jail. He was so wonderful to our family throughout the ordeal, and we’re very grateful. Anything an Orthodox Jew wants to do for his religion — I’m all in.”

To Michael, this is what all of it is really about, being “all in.” Whether in shul, court, his writing desk or on a sailboat, “It’s always about my relationship with Hashem.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1013)

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