Massachusetts Has Lost An Indigent Defense Giant

Schaefer #2Gerry Schaefer surrounded by old colleagues at the CPCS 25th Anniversary Party in 2009.

Attorney Gerry Schaefer, former head of the Massachusetts Defender Committee (MDC), passed away earlier this month at his home in Easthampton, MA.  Although I never had the pleasure of meeting Gerry, I’ve heard many heartfelt and remarkable stories from long time and former defenders.  They speak of him fondly as they have relayed their stories of what he meant to indigent defense in Massachusetts.  I believe the last time Gerry was seen by many was in July 2009 at the Committee for Public Counsel Services 25th Anniversary celebration held at the John Adams Courthouse at which he made a rare appearance.

Gerry Schaefer was hired as the head of the MDC in the summer of 1972 after six years as an MDC public defender.  This came about on the heels of ongoing criticism and considerable negative publicity regarding the state of indigent defense in the Commonwealth.  He took over MDC and immediately instituted caseload limits, and proceeded to hire prodigious young legal talent to compliment the quality attorneys already on staff.  He also made an effort to hire female attorneys, who up until that time, had only been tasked with “less-serious” cases.  With strong support from the organized bar, the Supreme Judicial Court, and the MDC Board, Gerry was instrumental in changing the perception of public defenders as attorneys merely seeking trial experience, to zealous advocates helping indigent clients, whether accused of minor or more serious crimes.  He was steadfast and successful in increasing staff salaries.  Also, as part of his efforts to professionalize staff, he required that they all be full-time employees.  Before this, staff attorneys were able to maintain private practices.  Under Gerry’s leadership, MDC instituted high quality training and supervision, as well as “vertical representation” (lawyers keeping cases from district to superior court) and the rule of not representing co-defendants.  His – and MDC’s- bottom line:  Quality over quantity and passionate dedication to clients first and foremost.  Many of the changes instituted by Gerry to address the serious problems in the quality of indigent defense unfortunately are still challenges in many states across the country.  On top of all of these accomplishments, Gerry was known to be an amazing trial lawyer who fought tenaciously and achieved great outcomes for his clients.

The bookends to Gerry’s transformation of public defense in Massachusetts were captured perfectly in a two-part article about the old and new leadership at the Massachusetts Defenders Committee (MDC) in The New Yorker in the summer of 1973, and the spontaneous, rousing reception with which he was greeted at the 25th Anniversary celebration in 2009.  (Chief Counsel Bill Leahy, upon being informed that he was in the crowd while giving his speech, announced, “Guess what? I’m told Gerry Schaefer’s in the house!” and the crowd roared its approval.)  A 1973 two part article from The New Yorker which makes clear what indigent defense looked like before and immediately after Gerry took over the MDC. The April 14, 1973 can be found here (the article starts on page 45) and the April 21, 1973 article can be found here (starting on page 44).

Thank you to several people including Bill Leahy, Arnie Rosenfeld, Alan Rubin, David Skeels, Scott Harshbarger, Stephanie Page, Bruce Bono, Marty Rosenthal, Anne Goldbach, David Hoose and others for sharing their memories, providing background on Gerry’s life and accomplishments and contributing to this message.  I have included a number of quotes below, which hopefully capture what Gerry meant to those who practiced during his time and who had the pleasure of knowing and working with such an incredible visionary.  Gerry Schaefer meant and still means a great deal to indigent defense in Massachusetts.

William Leahy, former MDC Attorney and former CPCS Chief Counsel:
“Gerry’s transformation of indigent defense in Massachusetts receives no mention in Norman Lefstein’s inclusion of CPCS as one of only three public defense programs — and the only statewide program — to be singled out as a model of effectiveness in his book, Securing Reasonable Caseloads (2011).  Such is the reality of public defense leadership in general, and especially such is the nature of Gerard Schaefer, the brilliant public advocate and doggedly private person. Through his inspiration and his example, he set in motion change that transformed a Commonwealth.”

Arnold Rosenfeld, former MDC Attorney and former CPCS Chief Counsel:
“It was an honor to serve with Gerry Schaefer during the formative years of the adoption of revolutionary policies for the public defenders in Massachusetts, including the establishment of caseload limits, the refusal to accept the representation of multiple defendants in any case, the hiring of talented young lawyers, and the institution of a training program that still is a national model, all of which occurred while he was the Chief Counsel. On a personal note, I shared an office with him the first year I was at MDC and he taught me how to be a trial lawyer, reviewing all my thirteen jury trials with me in advance with the meticulousness of a great trial lawyer.  I am indebted to him giving me the benefit of his knowledge and experience.”

Marty Rosenthal (former MDC Attorney and former CPCS Training Director):
Gerry Schaefer “had not just a brilliant mind but also uncanny perceptions & instincts about people, as well as both quiet passion & amazing humor & equally quiet & gigantic leadership skills.  One of the most cherished influences in my life; and, more importantly, how many thousands of Massachusetts people (“clients”) has he — indirectly — helped/saved by the legacy of his achievements & spirit, which will outlive him?”

Alan Rubin, former MDC Attorney and current CPCS Northampton Attorney-in–Charge:
“Gerry Schaefer’s legacy very much lives on in today’s CPCS and its recognition as one of the finest public defender organizations in the country.”

Bruce Bono, former MDC Attorney and former CPCS Senior trial attorney:
“Gerry inspired and empowered an entire generation of trial lawyers.  The honor roll is long and the impact monumental.  [He also] was the most brilliant creative trial attorney I have ever met.”

Anne Goldbach, former MDC Attorney and current CPCS Forensic Director:
“Gerry left a tremendous legacy to those of us who represent the poor in criminal cases and we all benefit from the high standards that he set.”

David Skeels, former MDC Attorney and current CPCS Appellate attorney:
“He tried over a hundred jury trials before becoming Chief Counsel and much preferred trying cases to being an administrator.  One of the first things Gerry did was to establish a limited case load system.  If the case load got over a certain limit then the office refused to take any more appointments.  This meant that judges had to appoint private counsel who would then be paid by the county.”

Stephanie Page, former MDC Attorney and former CPCS Senior trial attorney:
“Gerry did change the world for our clients – and me. Notice the “men”!!!! I never would have been without him.”

Scott Harshbarger, former MDC Deputy Chief Counsel:
“Gerry was … the leader who oversaw that change and those reforms blending the wise and experienced MDC veterans with these young Turks and …the rest is history.”

Anthony J. Benedetti
Chief Counsel
Committee for Public Counsel Services
44 Bromfield Street
Boston, MA 02108

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