He’s been receiving threats and insults during the last 10 weeks for his defense of Cesar Rodriguez, charged with the abuse and murder of his 7-year-old stepdaughter, Nixzmary Brown. And in the Jewish community, his name has cropped up as the lawyer representing Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, a former teacher at Midwood’s Yeshiva Torah Temimah now facing trial for allegedly molesting three students.
But Jeffrey Schwartz, the attorney in both cases, shrugs off the negative reaction to his work, saying that if nothing else during his 21 years of practice, he has learned how to be “thick-skinned.” He also turns to the Talmud for inspiration, says Schwartz, a Brooklyn native who attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush, Yeshiva University and YU’s Cardozo School of Law.
While studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva more than 20 years ago, Schwartz recalled in a recent interview, his rabbi there told him that Talmudic law “provides for both prosecutors and defense attorneys,” placing equal value on both positions. The rabbi also quoted the Talmud as saying that “one of the greatest mitzvahs is helping someone get released from prison.”
It’s a lesson that has stayed with Schwartz throughout the high-profile Nixzmary Brown trial, which the lawyer calls the most “morally challenging” case he has ever handled. In fact, Schwartz, 45, volunteered for the case after other lawyers had turned it down, he said. The offer came from a state panel that assigns counsel to indigent clients. (Rodriguez was convicted of first-degree manslaughter Tuesday but acquitted on murder charges; he faces 25 years in prison.)
“Part of the reason I took the case was to see whether I could do it and give it all I have,” said Schwartz, who considers it his moral and professional obligation to provide the best defense he can. The lawyer also wrestled with his conscience before making the choice, saying he had never contemplated taking a child-abuse or child-murder case. “I thought it was too disgusting and too nasty,” he said. “I didn’t want to defend a baby killer. I have 20 nephews and nieces, as well as a daughter; it’s not as if I don’t love kids.”
But Schwartz, whose daughter is 18, said turning the case down would have been “prima donnish.” Being a true defense lawyer requires taking any type of case, he added, just as being a doctor requires treating any patient who comes before you. He apparently felt the same way when Rabbi Kolko visited his office, having been referred to the attorney.
“If people think I’m a monster just because I’m representing a monster, then there’s a flaw with the system or how they perceive the system,” Schwartz said as he sat in an Upper West Side diner, close to where he lives. In response to one question, the lawyer said he could never have defended Hitler, who destroyed much of his family, “but I wouldn’t have hated the guy representing him.”
Much of the criticism aimed at Schwartz has stemmed from his aggressive defense of Rodriguez, which one of the case’s alternate jurors labeled “cocky.” Part of the lawyer’s strategy has involved questioning Nixzmary’s behavior, including suggestions that the emaciated child was a “little Houdini” — a reference to how she was able to slip from a chair in which she was bound — and that she bullied her five siblings.
But Schwartz made no apologies for his defense, which, he said, was partly intended to show jurors the chaotic situation that greeted his client, “a hard-working family man,” every time he returned home. He never meant to imply that the child brought the abuse on herself, as some of his critics have contended — only that she presented a further challenge to her “overwhelmed, stressed-out” parents.
While the Nixzmary Brown case was viewed by many observers as unwinnable for a defense lawyer, Schwartz believes Rabbi Kolko’s case is bound to be easier, said the lawyer, who began his career as an assistant district attorney in Queens. No stranger to high-profile cases, Schwartz counts among past clients Michael Kneitel, a Jewish Nazi from Borough Park convicted of weapons possession, and Erica Colon, who pled guilty to the murder of a livery cab driver. But his advocacy for the rabbi may stir just as many emotions.
“He seems to be very loved by most people and reviled by a few,” said Schwartz, who argues that many of the allegations against the rabbi came from a blog, the Unorthodox Jew, and that the blog master has recruited new victims in the case.
Meanwhile, Schwartz, a divorcee who comes across as boyishly charming and forthright, said he can’t wait to return to his normal routine, which includes attending synagogue every morning. The routine also includes a “Daf Yomi” class, in which participants study a page of Talmud each day.