Retired prosecutor speaks candidly about high-profile cases

Published: Monday, Feb. 3 2014 6:15 p.m. MST

Prosecutor Dave Schwendiman has retired after a career that spanned many decades and involved some of the most violent crimes in Utah.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In the fall of 1976, David Schwendiman was fresh out of law school when he suddenly found himself embroiled in a murder case that drew reporters and television crews from around the world.

He was part of a team of state lawyers who battled through the courts to help killer Gary Mark Gilmore get what he wanted: a date in front of a firing squad.

Now, Schwendiman has just retired after a career that spanned some of the most violent and infamous crimes in Utah history. Over the years, his legal skills were also deployed internationally as he prosecuted war criminals in Europe and worked to protect the Olympics from terrorists.

At the beginning of his career, as an assistant Utah attorney general, he found himself in a highly publicized battle that led to the nation's first execution following a 10-year suspension imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Gilmore broke the decadelong moratorium by insisting he had a right to die.

"He was a manipulator," Schwendiman recalled in an interview. "He was a person that had a frightening sort of aspect to him. He was a person that wanted to be executed. He used the legal system to accomplish that and made him into a bigger person."

Schwendiman was part of a state team that flew to Colorado in the middle of the night, hours before the scheduled execution on the morning of Jan. 17, 1977. In a predawn hearing in Denver, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled a stay of execution ordered the night before by Federal Judge Willis Ritter.

Shortly after the ruling, Gilmore was strapped into a chair to face the firing squad. Schwendiman now views Gilmore's death as a state-assisted suicide.

"I'm not sure we didn't do him a favor, and us a disservice, by playing that role under the circumstances," he said.

Years later, Schwendiman helped ensure the involuntary execution of infamous Ogden Hi-Fi killer Pierre Dale Selby. Schwendiman said he took no pleasure in helping to win that legal battle.

"I went home a bit sick," he recalled, "partly because we'd been up for so long and we'd been working so hard, but partly because I didn't really take great satisfaction in being one of the people with my finger on the trigger that did him in."

Throughout his long career, Schwendiman said, he just did his job, "trying to right things that were terribly wrong."

He served as a lawyer in the U.S. Navy from 1977 to 1984. Following his return to civilian life, Schwendiman was an assistant Utah attorney general from 1984 to 1987 and later served several years as an assistant U.S. attorney.

In that role, Schwendiman helped send several members of Ervil LeBaron's polygamy cult to prison. LeBaron's wives and children terrorized the fundamentalist underground for two decades, murdering at least 28 people in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

"It’s probably over, but I wouldn't count on it," Schwendiman said, referring to the LeBaron cult's reign of terror.

In later years, Schwendiman changed gears completely, investigating mass graves in the aftermath of the brutal civil war in Bosnia. Working for the Bosnian government, he helped prosecute more than 100 war criminals for horrendous cases of mass murder, rape and torture.

"Being able to be involved in that sort of thing and make some difference in it, even if it might be small, even if it's just with an individual, is worth every minute," he said.

Europe has no death penalty, even for mass murderers, so the experience deepened Schwendiman's ambivalence about the death penalty.

"I'm ambivalent about it because I'm not sure it accomplishes a great deal," he said. "You might be satisfied as a person that is entitled to some real revenge or retribution. But I'm not sure it doesn't demean us in the end."

From 1998 to 2004, Schwendiman was part of the Olympic security and counterterrorism team. He has no involvement in the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics but said he believes the Russian security apparatus under President Vladimir Putin has a higher ability to deal with the threat.

"The risk associated with the Sochi Games is probably much higher than it has been in other games," Schwendiman said, "but (Russian security personnel) can be more aggressive than we'd be allowed to be, or want to be."

Although he just retired, Schwendiman is not going out to pasture. He's heading off to Afghanistan for at least a year to serve as director of forward operations for the special inspector general for Afghanistan. His team's mission is ambitious: Figure out where all the money went, close to $1 trillion, that the U.S. spent on the war in Afghanistan over the past 12 years.

Email: hollenhorst@deseretnews.com

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