The Supreme Warrior

Why Walter L. Gerash is one of the best lawyers in the whole motherbleeping country

Published in 2008 Colorado Super Lawyers — April 2008

Scattered across Walter Gerash’s otherwise tidy living room are scrapbooks, loose papers and overflowing boxes that the 81-year-old lawyer is trying to organize. These are not depositions or court documents, by the way, but newspaper and magazine clippings, full-page layouts and cover stories about Gerash’s 52 years in law. There has been enough written about the man to literally fill a room. He finds an entire box with articles from the “Father’s Day Massacre” trial in 1992, when he defended the ex-cop charged with killing four guards in the United Bank of Denver robbery. “It was all on Court TV,” he says. “The jury was out nine days. I turned gray a little bit.”

Many of these articles discuss Gerash’s skill in defending unpopular, high-profile cases, like his irresistible impulse insanity defense for the “midnight rapist,” believed to have raped more than 30 women in Denver; his self-defense plea for heavyweight boxer Ron Lyle who shot and killed his former trainer in his living room; a split-personality defense for teen Ross Carlson who murdered his parents; another self-defense case for Iranian student Afshin Shariati, who shot and killed a Denver teen during the hostage crisis in 1979; and—of course—his not-guilty defense for the accused bank robber.

These clients were all either acquitted or committed.

Often noted in these success stories are Gerash’s flamboyance and theatrics in front of a jury. “Watching Gerash during the Shariati trial was somewhat reminiscent of the bratty little kid we all knew from childhood,” wrote Dana Parsons for The Denver Post in 1981. “Gerash from time to time tossed out sarcasm, scowls, insults, shouts, indignation, and what looked like pouting. He would throw up his hands as if to say, ‘How can they be doing this to me?’”

More than one writer noted the cape and swashbuckler’s cap Gerash would wear to the courthouse in the 1970s. Parsons said he looked, back then, “every bit like the guy who lost his ride home from the costume party.” In years to come, he’d lose the cape and cap for a beret, and later a panama hat, but his wardrobe was still bold enough to land him a full-page spread in the fashion section of a local paper.

The Walter Gerash in that photo bears little resemblance to the one now wearing jeans and a simple white T-shirt at home on a Saturday morning. The shirt, however, is a story in itself. It says Wage Peace Now over the images of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. Six days after 9/11, six protesters ascended a crane downtown to unfurl a massive banner with that message, and were arrested and charged with trespass. Gerash represented them pro bono and a jury found them not guilty.

Criminal defense may have made him famous but Gerash’s true passion is civil rights work. He reacts to each clipping like it’s a photograph of a friend he hasn’t seen in a long time. “Oh, this one!” he proclaims. “This is my connection to the Black Panther Party.

“This is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. We tried to shut down the production of nerve gas.

“This is the student protest at DU.

“This is where I represented the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

“This is Corky Gonzales and the Crusade for Justice.

“Oh! This is when I represented eight Fort Collins people who lay on the railroad tracks to stop a train that was carrying missiles.”

Gerash isn’t taking this walk down memory lane just for nostalgia’s sake. He wants to see a book written about the cases he argued that have social significance. He’s been thinking about writing it himself, but that would mean retiring—something he swore he’d never do. “I think that if I just stop practicing and stop relating to people, I’ll lose something and maybe not do a good job,” he says. “Seeking justice is a constant struggle, and where there’s no struggle there’s no progress.”

At the University of Chicago in 1950, Gerash was a politically active Marxist with one dream—to be a history professor. He’d already served two years in the Army, earned a bachelor’s degree from UCLA, and was now working toward a master’s degree and eventual Ph.D. But upon graduating in 1951, he wasn’t accepted for the doctoral program and couldn’t get a job teaching. He moved back to California and worked instead as a union organizer. After a couple of years, his first wife, whom he’d met while protesting the execution of the Rosenbergs, suggested he go to law school, since he argued all the time anyway.

“At that time, during the McCarthy era, it was pretty bad,” he says. “Now it’s terrorism. Before it was communism as an excuse to stifle rights and attack countries. But anyhow, at that time in California, you had to take a loyalty oath to become a lawyer and you’d get a visit from the FBI and name names.”

The prospect made Gerash nervous. A friend from Colorado suggested he move there because the political climate wasn’t as repressive, and he did, to Denver, with his wife and 1-year-old to finish law school. “Before I took the Bar, I got a visit from the FBI,” he says. “I was living in a housing project, kid crawling on the concrete floor. The FBI came in, wanted to know who I knew in California, what I thought of China, what I thought of the Soviet Union.” He must have said something right, because he passed the Bar and became a lawyer.

Gerash wanted to be a labor lawyer but got a job at a criminal defense firm earning $50 a month. After a couple of years, he opened his own office and continued with criminal defense. In 1958, in one of his first cases there, he defended a Hispanic couple accused of simple robbery in Sterling. He filed a motion to dismiss based on the fact that Spanish surnames were not appearing on jury lists; the motion was denied and he lost the case. He appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court and successfully argued against exclusion of Hispanic jurors. “We tried it again. We had two Spanish speakers on the jury and we won,” he says. “It was very important because it affected all 52 counties in Colorado, that little case.” In a later case, in 1973, Gerash would take a jury purification matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and set precedent for the right to inspect jury applications for race.

As Gerash’s number of criminal defense clients grew in the early ’60s, people started coming to him with personal injury cases. In 1964—his ninth year of practice—he got to work with famed lawyer and “king of torts” Melvin Belli on a suit. Belli became his mentor and started referring him cases. That first year he won three six-figure verdicts. “Then I started getting seven-figure verdicts and that enabled me to do free work for people who were persecuted,” he says.

In the 1960s, the Black Panthers became a client when he defended Langdon Williams and Rory Hithe, who were accused, along with Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins, of conspiring to kill a former party member. A trial ended in a hung jury and the charges were eventually dropped. He represented several members of the Chicano activist group Crusade for Justice, all pro bono. In the early 1970s, the San Francisco Mime Troupe came to Colorado with a show criticizing the Vietnam War and racism, an act that included some colorful language. The night of one performance, Gerash got a frantic call from a friend: “You’ve got to get down here. They’re arresting the actors.” Gerash fought the obscenity charges, arguing that words cannot be censored if they have some redeeming social value. The jury acquitted. He still has the plaque the group gave him in return for his services, proclaiming Gerash the “best defender of free speech in the whole motherfucking country.”

Gerash’s son, Daniel, who is also a personal injury and criminal defense lawyer in Denver, says it was the early work defending groups like the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Crusade for Justice that defined his father’s career. “My father has a zeal for justice like nobody I know,” he says. “It’s in his blood. It’s in his heart. Fighting for people who are oppressed or having their rights violated really is his life.”

It was during those early years that Gerash became a mentor to many young lawyers who would go on to have their own successful careers. Earl Wylder moved to Colorado in 1966 and got a job working for Gerash at a low point in his life. He was broke and his wife had just divorced him. Gerash quickly became more than a boss. He would call Wylder early in the morning just to see how he was, and even bought him a convertible.

Eventually, Gerash encouraged Wylder to apply for a job at the public defender’s office because it would be good for his career. Wylder is sure it was Gerash’s recommendation that landed him that highly sought-after job. “He advanced me in my career and lifted me up when I was down,” Wylder says. “He’s a wonderful person and he’s more sensitive than he appears to be.”

When Jeffrey Springer, now a trial lawyer in Denver who represents high-profile clients, started working for Gerash as a law clerk in 1975, he remembers how fascinating it was just to sit around listening to this man whose cases were making national headlines. “He’d be talking to Melvin Belli on the phone. The head of the Black Panther Party would come into the office. We were doing the Vail gondola crash. It was always exciting and stimulating.”

No mentor shaped his career more. “Everything I do and know today in part stems from my working experience with him,” Springer says. He watched him take on large law firms; he saw him make jurors cry.

“He taught me how to be creative, how to be tenacious, when to be aggressive, not to give up. He taught me an understanding of what it means to be in a war with the other side when you’re representing a client. He was a supreme warrior. I mean literally he’s a guy that would work out, keep himself unbelievably physically and mentally fit. He was an animal when it came to working out physically and then he would play chess. He beat the crap out of me on the chess table, and I was a pretty good chess player. He was always pushing his body and mind to be ready to go into war in the courtroom.”

Gerash is standing in front of the building that has been his office since 1979. 1439 Court Place—both a Denver landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places—is a lone 1880s two-story red stone and brick Victorian surrounded by parking lots and the steel and glass of downtown. When a developer tore down every other building on the block to build two skyscrapers that, as it turns out, were never built, Gerash was the only holdout.

Inside, the walls are lined with a series of framed courtroom drawings that tell the stories of Gerash’s highest-profile cases. By far, the most space is dedicated to the Shariati case.

In late 1979, the American embassy in Tehran was overrun and its staff taken hostage. Anti-Iranian feeling flooded the U.S., and in Denver a dozen young men went out one night to find some Iranians. At an apartment complex, they went through the names on mailboxes until they randomly found Afshin Shariati. Two of the teens used baseball bats to smash the front window of the apartment he shared with his wife. As the boys fled, Shariati fired two shots at their car with a rifle. He hit two of the boys, killing one of them.

The drawings on Gerash’s walls show how he defended that case. The baseball bat is placed in front of one witness as he testifies, and the smashed window in front of the other. Another drawing shows a witness with her hands in the air, imitating how shocked Shariati was when he realized what he’d done. “My position was a man and woman’s home is their castle,” Gerash recalls. “They shouldn’t be threatened in their own home.” Again, he brought jurors to tears. Again, he won.

“What I like to do is make sure [the jurors] feel this is so important, this case,” Gerash says. “Either for the country or obviously for the client, that they’re doing a service for humanity by functioning as a juror. Plus, I think it’s important to give them a gift of the literary or dramatic, to ennoble your message with a passion that dignifies their strong role to do justice. But it can’t be phony.

“The Shariati case was an example of how in spite of tremendous propaganda, in spite of the fact that Iran had our hostages, it showed the power of our jury system to do right.”

Even prosecutor Chuck Lepley, who tried the case with the district attorney, the late Dale Tooley, gives Gerash credit for having an outstanding, intimidating reputation as a trial lawyer. “He did a lot of work over the years on issues that, whether they were political or not, he was fairly adept at moving them in that direction.” And he was known for representing the underdog, Lepley says.

Ross Carlson wasn’t necessarily an underdog, but he was certainly unpopular. The teenager, another face on Gerash’s wall, murdered his parents in Douglas County. Gerash had experts testify that Carlson suffered from a multiple personality disorder. He was found incompetent, and his trial was put off while he was sent to the state mental hospital to have his competency restored. He died of leukemia before that could happen. Dan Gerash remembers one holiday when his father said he had to go visit Carlson. “I asked why. He raised his voice and got passionate and said, ‘Because he doesn’t have any parents!’ and off he went on Christmas to visit Carlson.”

His commitment to his clients reached critical mass in the James King case. Death penalty cases have always given Gerash the most anxiety and this one was under a national spotlight. On Father’s Day 1991, a man robbed United Bank of Denver, shooting and killing four guards in a secure area on a Sunday. Deciding it had to be an inside job, the police focused on staff. King, a retired police officer who had previously been a guard at the bank, looked suspicious. He’d gotten rid of his gun, claiming it didn’t work properly. And he had gone near the downtown bank—to the chess club—the day of the robbery, claiming he didn’t know the chess club had been closed for over a year and a half.

Gerash, an avid chess player, knew King. At first he, too, thought it was suspicious that King didn’t know the chess club was closed, but King explained he’d been playing correspondence chess from home. Gerash not only believed King, he still raises his voice in outrage when describing what would become a key element of his defense—how he believes police led witnesses to falsely identify his client.

He tried the case with then-partner Scott Robinson. By then, Robinson had been practicing with Gerash for 17 years, but he still felt a little like the young lawyer Gerash was taking a chance on during his biggest trial ever. Looking back now, Robinson thinks the reason they won, the reason he can’t recall a case they ever lost together, was because of how they complemented each other. The high-energy, theatrical cross-examinations went to Gerash and Robinson spent hours learning the bank’s security system inside and out. “He was full of emotion. I was full of rational common sense,” Robinson says. “It was a formula that always worked well for us.”

Gerash doesn’t always win. He eagerly defended Columbine High School teacher Al Wilder, who was fired after showing Bernardo Bertolucci’s critically acclaimed 1900 to students without getting permission from the principal. The film concerns the rise of fascism in Italy and includes some nudity, violence and drug use. The Colorado Supreme Court eventually ruled the school was within its rights to fire Wilder. Still, Gerash proudly keeps on display the passionate thank-you letters he received from both the teacher and Bertolucci, who testified in the case by phone from Italy.

But there’s always a new struggle. He represented Sister Jackie Hudson, who, in an act of civil disobedience with two other Dominican nuns, and in accord with Isaiah 2:4 (“They shall beat their swords into plowshares”), took a hammer to a Minuteman III missile silo. Right now he’s representing a group of protesters who sat in at Sen. Ken Salazar’s office to protest the Iraq war. Gerash has been lounging in his high-back red leather desk chair, but he leans forward to tell this story. After the protesters waited peacefully for hours without talking to the senator, at 5 p.m. staff told them to leave. They said no, it was their constitutional right to talk to their representative. “Finally, the cops came in, said, ‘If you don’t leave you’ll be arrested.’ They left, and then they were arrested, shackled and charged with trespass,” Gerash says with a look of pained disgust.

That look is quickly replaced by a broad smile—because this is what he’s going to do in trial, he says as he flips through the state Constitution. “I’m going to get a big sign and put it in front of the jury,” he says. “‘Article 2, Section 24: The people have the right peaceably to assemble for the common good, and to apply to those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances, by petition or remonstrance,’” he reads.

“I’m going to put that right in front of the jury. That’s why this case is so significant. It goes to the essence of democracy. That’s what you tell the jury.” (Gerash would lose that case in December, but the judge, after fining each protestor $50, suspended the fine and all court costs.)

There are a few defense cases still piled on Gerash’s desk—including a drug case for Brian Hicks, an accused gang leader whose SUV was involved in the fatal shooting of Denver Bronco Darrent Williams. Gerash thinks maybe once he gets these last few cases resolved he’ll retire to write his book. Or maybe not.

“Last night, I went out with a lawyer, and he said, ‘Don’t do it. You like to try cases. Keep going. You’re going to dry up and die if you don’t.”

Gerash is considering what his friend said. “I think that if I still do some pro bonos, that will be enough to keep me happy. So far, I’m in good health. I got a new left hip. I think I’m OK for another few years, maybe.

“Eighty-one years old,” he adds, then laughs. “I never knew I’d reach that age.” 

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