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a man in a suit and tie holding two signs.
Defense attorney Walter Gerash explains how he tried to enter parts of the U.S. Constitution as a defense for three activists tried for occupying U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar's office in 2007 to protest the Iraq war. Gerash called the case "a punishment of protest." (George Kochaniec Jr./Rocky Mountain News via Denver Public Library)

Walter Gerash, a diminutive trial lawyer who could grow to mythical proportions while arguing trials in a courtroom, died Sunday in Littleton of natural causes after a long decline, according to his family.

He was 96.

Gerash tried some of Colorado’s most notorious cases, winning most of them, while leaving a legacy of creativity, ingenuity and fearlessness. His theatrical antics in the courtroom, along with his booming voice, became legendary.

Suing the University of Denver for negligence after a student broke his neck on a trampoline in 1978, Gerash brought the trampoline into the courtroom, along with a replica of a skeleton with a broken neck. During a break in proceedings, Gerash intentionally tossed the skeleton onto the trampoline with its head ajar, directly in front of the jury.

The jury awarded the largest personal-injury award in Colorado history, though it was later reduced by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Gerash also represented professional heavyweight boxer Ron Lyle, accused of first-degree murder in the shooting death of his trainer. Lyle was acquitted. 

Denver attorney Walter Gerash, speaks with the media after the sentencing of his client Marcus Richardson in the stabbing death of a fellow student at Montbello High School on July 18, 2006. (Todd Heisler, Rocky Mountain News via Denver Public Library)

James King, a former Denver police officer, was accused of shooting and killing four security guards during a robbery on Fathers’ Day, 1991, at United Bank, now Wells Fargo, on 17th Avenue and Broadway. Three of the guards were fathers of young children.

Despite witnesses who claimed to identify King, Gerash, who along with Scott Robinson defended King, won an acquittal. The crime was never resolved.

Along with his legal prowess, Gerash was fiercely passionate about civil injustices — fighting for minorities, underdogs and social conditions he considered unfair. He represented eight Fort Collins people who laid down on railroad tracks to stop a train carrying nuclear missiles, as well as protesters who tried to shut down the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. He defended, pro bono, Catholic nuns who broke into a missile silo and spilled fake blood to protest wars and mass killings. 

He represented members of the Black Panther party, as well as many Chicano activists, including Francisco “Kiko” Martínez, accused of mailing letter bombs. He also worked with Denver activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales’ Crusade for Justice in its struggles against employment discrimination and police brutality against Hispanics.

“Seeking justice is a constant struggle, and where there’s no struggle, there’s no progress,” he was quoted as saying in a 2008 profile by the publication Super Lawyers.

His son, Dan, also a trial lawyer, said his father’s zeal for justice was unmatched. 

“Fighting for people who are oppressed or having their rights violated really is his life,” he told Super Lawyers.

Shannon Francis, left, sits next to attorney Walter Gerash, and listens to a speaker during a press conference at the Four Winds American Indian Center on Oct. 10, 2007, announcing the legal defense strategy for the charges leveled at the people arrested arrested and charged for protesting Denver’s Columbus Day parade. Francis was one of those arrested. (Judy DeHaas/Rocky Mountain News via Denver Public Library)

Some members of Denver’s legal community were intimidated by Gerash’s intensity and fire. Some were jealous of his success. Friends made fun of his penchant for driving a large, red Cadillac with an anti-war sticker on the back bumper. 

“It’s difficult being a wealthy communist,” they joked to him over breakfast at his favorite restaurant, Zaidy’s Deli.

Gerash was born in the Bronx section of New York City in 1926. In high school, he swam competitively and continued to swim for exercise until just before his death. 

He spent two years in the Army, then attended UCLA, where he also started law school but claimed he was “pushed out” for his zealous progressive views. He finished law school at the University of Denver, then received a master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago. His 100-page thesis addressed imperialism in Africa.

His three marriages all ended in divorce. He had two sons from his first marriage to Helen, a psychiatrist in Denver. Walter said he was quite proud of her and joked about her persuading him to go to law school “because we argued so much.” She survives him.

Their son Doug and his wife, Kathy, live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Son Dan and his wife, Karen, live in Denver, as do their children Halle and Will. Walter Gerash also is survived by a brother, Jerry, of Palm Springs, California, who was prominent in Denver’s LGBTQ community in the 1980s.

Gerash eventually bought the two-story, red brick Victorian building in the 1400 block of Court Place in Denver, where he practiced the rest of his career. Developers tore down every building around his to build two office towers but he refused to sell. The small building, landmarked as the Curry-Chucovich House, stands alone in a block-long parking lot now, a testament to his stubbornness.

Denver lawyer Walter Gerash in about 2003. (Courtesy of James H. Chalat)

Staffers and clerks spoke warmly of Gerash, despite his outward image of being prickly and impatient. “He was very generous,” said secretary and paralegal Marj Reinhardt.

He mentored or had as clerks some now-prominent names in the legal community, such as Earl Wylder, Scott Robinson and John Kane, now a senior U.S. District Court judge.

“It wasn’t so much what Walter said as it was the way he said it — his volume, his gestures, his tone,” Kane said. “Most of the stories I have about him I would not want to see in his obit (nor in mine).”

Gerash, who maintained an almost competitive level of physical fitness, closed his practice slowly, around 2010, as he began to feel the fog of dementia, said his son, Dan. Yet he remained an avid chess player, winning his final match within days of his death.

Services are pending.

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