Stuart Schuman, who spent decades as the heart and soul of the Philadelphia Defender Association, left us earlier this week. If you somehow managed to spend time under Stu’s tutelage and you didn’t rethink your entire approach to being a public defender, it was likely you had chosen the wrong career path. He was that kind of a mentor.
I will never forget my first contact with him. The Defender had a very involved training program, and Stu got to speak to all the new lawyers for an hour. For impact, try to imagine Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, but in a very small room. “Every courtroom, every list, every day, every file, every client,” he intoned. By the time he was done, every young public defender was prepared to pull an all-nighter to defend the retail thief caught on video stealing a scarf. Was he homeless? On drugs? Did he have a detainer? If so, had you looked at that case to find out why he was in custody? Had you gone to that judge and asked him to lift the detainer? If the judge had ordered the detainer lifted, had you made sure the clerk had sent a short certificate to the record room? Had you called the jail to make sure they got it? Had you called a few days later to be sure the client got out? And on and on. This was how you represented a poor person accused of a crime – he was lucky to have you. In fact, he couldn’t get better representation if he was a millionaire. All of this in the first hour you met Stu Schuman.
The best lawyers in the Defender Association spent hours in Stu’s office; but you didn’t dare enter unprepared. And even if you were as prepared as you thought humanly possible, you left having more to do. While you were there, you saw the volume of work he handled every day, and the chicken-scratch handwritten notes he left on countless files advising lawyers of the additional work that should be done. More than once I advised Stu that if he simply cleaned up his office – try to imagine a flash flood of yellow files entering your work space every day – he might be a little less stressed out by the job. Those suggestions were rejected – I know exactly where everything is, he would say. And this was true.
But while everyone knew Stu as the leader of the Municipal Court unit, very few knew his dedication to abolishing the death penalty. For many years - before the Defender Homicide Unit came into being, before the federal habeas unit, before any statewide post-conviction units – Stu was the unofficial head of the movement to reform capital punishment defense in Pennsylvania. There was no money, there was no organization, there was no public support, but Stu Schuman was undeterred. There was a principle at stake, and that principle was the undeniable dignity of every human being. Whether you were facing a bad check charge or a homicide charge, you deserved the best representation money couldn’t buy.
Now he is gone, and no one who knew him expects there to be another. Fortunately, he leaves behind many lawyers and social workers and investigators who listened to his every word.