David Schwendiman’s career as a lawyer in Utah was one replete with high-profile, high-stakes cases, and after his recent retirement, he talked to reporters about his experiences in the courtroom.
He began his career with a murder case in which the defendant manipulated the legal system to achieve his own ends, Schwendiman reflects. Gary Mark Gilmore was Schwendiman’s first client and was also the first person to be executed after a ten-year suspension of the death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court, and he gained international notoriety by demanding a death by firing squad execution. Remembering him as a person with “a frightening sort of aspect,” Schwendiman recounts how Gilmore’s desire to be executed unnerved court members. Looking back, he muses, “I’m not sure we didn’t do him a favor, and us a disservice,” by securing the death penalty for Gilmore. He now views it as a state-assisted suicide.
In another high-profile, death-penalty case in Utah, Schwendiman served as prosecutor for Pierre Dale Selby, the infamous Ogden Hi-Fi killer whose brutality in an armed robbery and murder in northern Utah gained national attention in 1977. Schwendiman states that he took no pleasure in prosecuting the killer, even while he believed him guilty. “I went home a bit sick,” he recalled, and never felt entirely comfortable knowing that he was “one of the people with my finger on the trigger that did him in.” Schwendiman talks about doing his job, “trying to right things that were terribly wrong.”
From 1977 to 1984, Schwendiman served as an attorney in the U.S. Navy before returning to his life as a lawyer in Utah where he practiced as an assistant Utah attorney general. He later served several years as an assistant U.S. attorney. In that role, Schwendiman worked on the case of the polygamous cult of Ervil LeBaron, whose family members terrorized members of the fundamentalist underground for 20 years and murdered almost 30 people in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, California and Mexico. Fundamentalist groups on the Utah-Arizona border still gain national attention, though in less dramatic ways, and Schwendiman doubts that the LeBaron’s reign of terror is entirely over.
Later, as a prosecutor for the Bosnian government, Schwendiman investigated mass graves in the aftermath of the area’s brutal civil war, prosecuting more than 100 war criminals for atrocities that included rape, torture and murder. But instead of being bogged down, Schwendiman reports that participating in such activities gave him a sense of contribution to a greater good. “Being able to …make some difference, even if it might be small…is worth every minute,” he stated confidently.
While a lawyer in Utah, Schwendiman worked for the Olympic security and counterterrorism team during the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games. Now, in his retirement, he plans to travel to Afghanistan to investigate the paper trail for the money the U.S. has spent at war in the country during the last 12 years- a total of nearly $1 trillion. In his final comments about his experience with the American death penalty, especially in contrast with his European work (where the capital punishment doesn’t exist) Schwendiman is broodingly ambivalent: “I’m not sure it accomplishes a great deal….I’m not sure it doesn’t demean us in the end.”