Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
Jack Swerling is less fearsome than his courtroom moniker ‘Mr. Murder’
Published in 2019 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on April 24, 2019
Updated on May 5, 2020
If you find yourself charged with murder or other serious crimes in South Carolina, chances are good you’ll end up knocking on the door of “Mr. Murder.” At 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, Jack Swerling is an intimidating presence anywhere, but in the courtroom, he’s known to go for the jugular. In cross-examinations, he unleashes his killer intellect and booming oratorical force on behalf of his clients—many of them alleged or admitted murderers. The notorious Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins and Larry Gene Bell are two of the 13 death penalty cases the attorney has argued in his 45-year career.
“When you’re in trouble, Jack’s the guy you want,” says state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who has known him since their undergrad days at Clemson. As a young prosecutor, Harpootlian opposed the Bronx-born, New Jersey-bred Swerling in the 1983 Gaskins case. While incarcerated for 11 other murders, Gaskins was accused of masterminding the contract-killing of a fellow cell block inmate.
In the trial, Harpootlian observed first-hand Swerling’s deft maneuvers and lock-tight preparation. “We knocked each other’s brains out for eight weeks,” he says. Harpootlian frequently reminds his friend that he won.
“Yeah, well, a monkey could have won that case,” Swerling replies.
It was around this time that a crime reporter from The Charlotte Observer dubbed Swerling ‘Mr. Murder.’ But his formidable swagger—“the histrionics, the yelling and pounding the table”—stay in the courtroom, says Harpootlian, who was a law partner with Swerling for eight years after the Gaskins trial. His colleague’s real persona is more teddy than grizzly.
“For someone as big as Jack is, he’s incredibly sensitive to others’ feelings. He’s one of most generous and compassionate people I know.”
Trial theatrics come naturally to Swerling, who enjoyed a brief acting career in high school and was drawn to law in part due to its performance aspects. He grew up in Belleville—“Sopranos territory,” he says. His parents were children of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland—his father was a steel factory foreman and his mother a homemaker.
“My parents taught us that there was a clear line between right and wrong, and you better lean toward what’s right,” he says. “They were liberals who believed in social justice, and knew no distinctions between race, religion or ethnicity.”
Swerling played football and basketball in junior high and high school; but everything changed in his sophomore year when his 43-year-old father died of a heart attack. “I basically stopped playing sports and lost motivation,” says Swerling.
He did discover theater, however, and scored the lead role in his senior class play: Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. “I loved it,” he says.
A flair for the law and the dramatic seems to run in the family, says Swerling, pointing to his first cousin Peter Coyote, an accomplished actor whose credits include playing lawyers in Erin Brockovich and Jagged Edge. His 44-year old son, Bryan, now a civil litigator in Manhattan, spent a few years acting in California. His daughter Stephanie, 41, also worked in show business at Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, and is now in law school in Washington, D.C.
Swerling spent summers working on his Uncle Morris’ beef and dairy farms on the Delaware River to help his mother make ends meet—work he loved. “I was a city boy on the farm. I got to follow the vets around and basically do everything they did.”
An interest in large animal veterinary medicine led him to Clemson in 1964. Studying became less a priority than other diversions, like being a rugby club charter member. “It was perfect: a little practice, beer drinking, parties, raunchy songs. … Chemistry was my downfall.” He admits his rebellious attitude didn’t help his GPA. “I was angry at the cards I’d been dealt. I was called to the dean of students’ office a lot.”
At Clemson he also met Erika Helfer, a Brooklyn native who is now his wife of 49 years and a travel agent. He credits her with helping him get his act together to graduate only one semester late. Swerling then went to New York City to work as an insurance adjustor, which entailed working with lawyers.
“Basically I sat around for a year and watched attorneys try cases,” says Swerling. In 1970, he and Erika married and returned to South Carolina for law school, where he made the honor roll and graduated near the top of his class.
He sees due process as the bedrock of democracy. “The right to a fair trial and effective assistance of counsel, to presumption of innocence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt, are fundamental to our liberty,” Swerling says.
This is what keeps him at the office until 8 most weeknights. It’s also why he represents clients accused of everything from rape, homicide, drug trafficking and extortion to fraud of all types—not because he wants a guilty person to go free, but because he wants to hold the justice system accountable.
“If everyone, even those that may be guilty, gets effective representation and has a right to a fair trial, then theoretically, innocent folks will be protected from unjust conviction,” Swerling says. “My job is to represent my client zealously, to test the system daily to make sure it’s working and that the burden of proof—the protective barrier between the government and the people—remains intact. That’s what makes this country pretty special.”
The 73-year-old thrives on all aspects of trying a case: doing research, cross-examining witnesses, and putting together a closing argument, which he calls “the ultimate showdown, the stakes are always high.” Swerling also finds humor, often at his own expense, in the trial trenches.
“We laughed—a lot,” Hartpootlian says of his years as Swerling’s law partner. “It was like M*A*S*H, only for lawyers.”
A few instances come to the mind of Fourth Circuit Judge Paul M. Burch, who has known Swerling for 30 years. There was the days-long trial in which Swerling’s client faced drug possession charges for cocaine and Viagra. “[Jack] thought he had it made when he heard the not-guilty verdict on the cocaine charge. Then they ruled guilty on the Viagra,” Burch says with a laugh.
He likewise recalls an infamous story that has followed Swerling ever since it occurred about 30 years ago. Swerling was representing a woman he argued had killed her husband in self-defense based on the then-novel battered woman syndrome.
“The emotions were running high, and the victim’s family was getting very hostile with me,” Swerling says. “I was worried something could happen to me, so I took a pistol with me in my belt. This is before electronic surveillance or X-ray machines in the courthouse. When the judge asked if there were any objections to the charge, I stood up and the gun popped out and slid across the floor. I was horrified. So here I am, casually trying to slide toward the gun and pick it up without the judge seeing, which I did. Now every lawyer in the state knows the story. It became that widespread.”
Ultimately, the jury acquitted her. “So it’s a nice postscript to the story,” Swerling says. “It was an embarrassing thing in my life, but those things sometimes turn into great stories.”
This kind of work requires levity from time to time, as those moments are rare. Take the terrifying day in 2002 when a former client broke into the Swerling home. Two men bound the family with electrical tape and held them face down on the floor at gunpoint. They were under the impression Swerling kept large sums of cash, and threatened to kill him if he didn’t hand it over. They ended up with $17.
Nearly a year after the home invasion, police caught the assailant: Jimmy Causey, whom Swerling had twice represented on burglary charges. Causey was sentenced to life, but escaped prison twice—putting the Swerlings on high alert.
“I’ve always been sympathetic and never callous to victims, and I do have a greater appreciation now, having been a victim myself, for what they are going through,” says Swerling, who currently sits on the S.C. Victim Advisory Board. “But I have been able to separate that empathy from my zealous representation of a defendant accused of a crime.”
Swerling also invests significant time and energy in mentoring and teaching. For 25 years he has planned and produced a daylong CLE “Annual Update” on criminal law. He served as a Bar examiner for six years, meticulously grading blue books. “I’d pop my head in his office and ask Jack, ‘How’s it going?’ and he’d tell how many had not passed,” Harpootlian recalls. “‘Wow, that’s an awful lot,’ I’d rib him; and, as sensitive a guy as he is, he’d agonize and go back to reassess them.”
In addition, Swerling has taught at the USC School of Law, and is a regular lecturer on forensic psychiatry for the USC School of Medicine—an area of particular interest. He ran the Bridge the Gap program (see sidebar), and never turns down a request from a young lawyer seeking advice.
“So many people have helped me along the way, particularly Isadore Lourie,” Swerling says of the trial lawyer and state senator whom he first worked for after law school. “I enjoy paying that back by mentoring and making myself available to other lawyers along the way. The teaching and courtroom—it’s all interrelated. It’s all about being comfortable in front of people and knowing how to communicate and keep it interesting. Acting, public speaking and teaching—it all matches up.”
When not in performance mode, though, he’s a bit of an introvert. He enjoys reading, spending quiet evenings with his wife and close friends, and walking his beloved dogs, including Paulie the poodle and Bella the briard. Previous pets were named Bruno and Cosmo. “We always name them after gangsters,” he says, a nod to his Belleville roots.
Fifth Circuit Judge Robert Hood has witnessed Swerling’s courtroom prowess time and again. “Watching Jack cross-examine a witness always impresses me,” Hood says. “How somebody so tall and so big and so not-from-South Carolina can communicate with witnesses and jurors is mind-boggling. He has a gift like nothing I’ve seen before. He can attack a witness’s credibility without offending anyone in the room. When Jack is on my docket, I tell my law clerks, ‘You do not want to miss this. You are seeing one of the greatest trial lawyers in the state’s history.’”
One particular case stands out for Hood. Swerling was defending a man accused of raping his grandson, which meant the little boy was called to testify against his own grandfather. “Swerling, this massively intimidating guy with this grandiose booming voice, gets up to cross-examine him,” Hood recalls. “He walks over to this kid, bends down and gently asks the boy, ‘Did [the prosecutor] talk to you about the fact that I’d be asking you some questions? Are you nervous? What did he tell you?’ And the little boy looked up and answered, ‘He said not to worry, that you were really nice.’
“For a Northerner down here in a South Carolina courtroom, he’s able to communicate and connect with people in a way that turns all preconceived notions on their head,” adds Hood. “That’s Jack.”
Minding the Gap
Swerling helped run Bridge the Gap for 32 years
The Bridge the Gap program was created by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Julian Ness in the early ’80s to help law students transition to practice. Swerling taught the criminal law portion of the five-day course since its inception and, after Ness died in 1991, he oversaw the entire program for its 500-plus participants. The program was condensed over the years, but remained a Bar requirement until 2016. “By that time, numerous similar courses and resources were offered online, so the need was being met elsewhere,” says Swerling.
One of Swerling’s sessions was called “The Great Adventure—Practicing Law.” For him, the adventure is best summed up by a quote from a letter Harper Lee wrote to the Alabama Bar Association in 1997. “[The profession] has had some real-life heroes—lawyers of quiet courage and uncompromising integrity who did right when right was an unpopular and sometimes dangerous thing to do.”
“I don’t profess to be an Atticus Finch,” Swerling says, “but I do relish the pursuit of what’s right.”