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Attorney commanded courtroom, stage

During a colorful 20-year law career, Michael Schwartzberg defended poor people accused of the worst of murders, often sparing them from the death penalty. Outside court, he delighted fans of local community theater, often playing lead roles such as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

Mr. Schwartzberg died Wednesday night after he apparently suffered a heart attack while driving home from theater rehearsal.

He was 47.

During his career, Mr. Schwartzberg was court-appointed to defend more than 70 people charged with murder, many of them high-profile death penalty cases.

He saved his indigent clients from death row more often that not. He twice earned first-degree murder acquittals, which are rare. He defended two accused serial killers and saved both of their lives.

"Mike had his heart in it," said Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "He was bound and determined that an indigent person would get due process and that constitutional rights were applied to everybody, not just people with money."

Mr. Schwartzberg was known as much for his wit and affability as for his intelligence and craftiness in the courtroom. He often began jury selection by quoting the rock star Meatloaf, challenging the prosecution to prove every element of the charge and reminding jurors that "two out of three ain't bad" wouldn't cut it.

"The jury loved him," said Richard Watts, who worked with Mr. Schwartzberg on nearly 50 murder cases. "They wouldn't necessarily find for him, but you could tell they liked him."

Mr. Schwartzberg's true love was the theater. He was president of the board of directors of St. Petersburg Little Theatre and had performed in and directed numerous productions.

Hours before his death, he rehearsed the lead role of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The show opens in two weeks, and Mr. Schwartzberg was excelling in the part.

"He was in great form," said Murray Mintz, the show's director. "It's really unfortunate that other people won't get to see him do what we've seen him do over the last few nights."

Mr. Schwartzberg had lost more than 160 pounds since undergoing risky gastric bypass surgery in April. Though he had once weighed more than 450 pounds, Mr. Schwartzberg's weight had tumbled to about 300 pounds.

He was working out with a personal trainer and was delighted to be buying clothes off the rack, said Lorrie Lykins, a friend through local theater who writes a column for the St. Petersburg Times.

"Michael really felt the weight was holding him back from being who he wanted to be," Lykins said. "He really wanted to reclaim his body and get on with the next chapter of his life."

Still, Mr. Schwartzberg poked fun of his weight in court, often to put jurors at ease. Jurors often chuckled when he suggested the only thing they would see bigger than the podium was himself.

Lykins said doctors told Mr. Schwartzberg he could die on the operating table from the gastric bypass surgery, but he decided to take the risk.

According to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office, the surgery was not a factor in Mr. Schwartzberg's death. The cause of death was determined to be cardiovascular disease.

Mr. Schwartzberg also suffered a heart attack in 1995 while on a golf course in his native state of Ohio. His heart stopped on the way to the hospital, though he was revived with three zaps from a defibrillator.

On Wednesday, Mr. Schwartzberg was driving east in the 6400 block of Eighth Avenue N when his car left the road at a slow speed and hit a utility pole not far from his home, according to St. Petersburg police.

Paramedics found him in full cardiac arrest and took him to St. Petersburg General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.

Mr. Schwartzberg graduated from Bowling Green State University in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in political science. He graduated from Stetson University College of Law in 1984.

He went into private practice and later was added to a short list of local court-appointed attorneys qualified for death penalty cases.

Appointed lawyers earn $90 an hour, much less than other private attorneys make. While most attorneys will take on one or two death cases a year, Mr. Schwartzberg often juggled several, including ones that appeared to be slam-dunks for prosecutors. He currently had six murders on his plate, including four death penalty cases.

"He's a champion of the underdog," Watts said. "He was a lover of humanity. He would put his bulk between the executioner and the client."

His cases will be taken over by other attorneys, which could result in some delays in their progress as the new lawyers get up to speed.

Mr. Schwartzberg was known for his expertise in DNA evidence and was respected for being quick on his feet and setting up a good appellate record.

"He certainly was at the top, in my opinion, in this county for lawyers who were handling those cases," said Judge Brandt Downey."He was always well-prepared and ready to go."

Mr. Schwartzberg's abilities and personality also earned the respect of prosecutors.

"It would be a dog fight during the trial, but Mike's personality was such that . . . even though the case was hard-fought, he was always affable," said prosecutor Doug Crow, who faced off with Mr. Schwartzberg in court several times.

But when the day in court was over, Mr. Schwartzberg enjoyed retreating to the theater.

"He said theater was therapy for him and kept him sane," Lykins said.

His favorite role was Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, which he played many times.

"I live that role," Mr. Schwartzberg told the Times before a performance in 2001. "I try to live my life like Tevye. I'm a criminal defense attorney and I probably find myself at least once a day saying something that Tevye does. I might lose a trial, but no matter how much adversity you face, you've got to keep smiling."

Mr. Schwartzberg is survived by his wife, Sherry, of St. Petersburg; his mother, Joanne, of Toledo, Ohio; five stepchildren; and a sister.

Funeral services and burial will be in Ohio, though a memorial has been scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 14 at the criminal courthouse in Largo. His friends in the theater also are planning a memorial.

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