He was one of South Florida’s most highly sought defense attorneys, a legal legend who helped get two black men off Florida Death Row for a 1963 murder they didn’t commit.
But Irwin J. Block was also humble, so much so that lawyers at the South Florida firm that carried his name — Fine Jacobson Schwartz Nash & Block — learned from others about how he spent about 10 years doing pro bono work to help Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee go free, say friends and former colleagues.
Together with the late Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller, the legal team proved that Pitts and Lee, despite confessions beaten out of them by police, did not abduct and kill two gas station attendants on Aug. 1, 1963, in Port St. Joe. Miller won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for reporting on the case, which persuaded then-Gov. Reubin Askew to pardon the men.
Block died Friday in Boynton Beach from a heart condition. He was 87.
“If every lawyer was like Irwin Block, there would not be any lawyer jokes,” attorney Sara Herald said of her former law partner. “He was the most ethical, humble advocate you could ask for. He believed in public service and set that example for every young lawyer who worked with him.
“Every person in our firm did public service because of the example that he set,” she added.
A few years ago, Herald nominated Block for the Legal Legend award. It was one of many honors he received during more than 60 years of practicing law.
After he received the 2011 David W. Dyer Professionalism Award, attorney Roy Black, another well-known South Florida legal mind, blogged that Block was “the personification of professionalism.”
“He was always a gentleman no matter how heated the litigation,” Black wrote, recalling the impact Block had on his own legal career. “I learned from watching him in action. Always over-prepared and performed in an exquisitely courtly manner.”
Block was born Oct. 25, 1927, in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from Yeshiva, he joined the Marines. His wife, Doris, said he was only about 17.
After the war, he went to the University of Miami on the G.I. bill. He started as an accounting major, but quickly changed his mind. He stayed at UM for law school and graduated in 1950. That year, he married Doris, whom he met at his father’s meat store.
Before entering private practice, Block also worked for the state attorney’s office.
When Kevin Emas was appointed a judge on Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal 2010 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, Block was as proud as his parents, the judge said. Emas was the second Fine Jacobson alum to have been appointed to the Third District court. In 2003, firm alum Linda Ann Wells had also been appointed to the court.
Wells had worked on appeals with Block, while Emas worked on criminal cases.
“He could handle any kind of case,” Emas said of his mentor, “civil, criminal, family. He had such outstanding instincts and ability that the type of case didn’t matter.”
Block was not the kind of lawyer to shy away from controversial cases. In the 1980s, he and Emas served as defense counsel for one of Miami-Dade County’s most sensational corruption trials. They represented Alberto San Pedro, the so-called “Great Corrupter” of Hialeah politics.
An influential real estate developer, San Pedro was eventually convicted in 1988 on seven of the 39 charges against him — one count of conspiracy to traffic in cocaine and six counts of unlawful compensation — by a three-man, three-woman jury after nine days of deliberations. But before the conviction, the San Pedro scandal and its secret police recordings consumed the public.
“It proved to be extraordinarily complicated, and unfortunately entertaining for many who read about the daily travails of that case — the girlfriend, the book he wrote, the tapes,” Emas recalled. “They were listening to everything that went on in his house for months.”
Nevertheless, Emas said, “It was great working with Irwin. To watch the master at work was extraordinary.”
Like Black, he recalled Block’s over-preparation and his mantra to lawyers he mentored: The other side could always have smarter lawyers, but you can always be better prepared.
“Irwin was a mentor, but not just to me but to scores of lawyers in our law firm, Fine Jacobson,” Emas said. “We all learned pretty much at his knees how to become trial lawyers, how to be professionals in our community; to be humbled and to be prepared and to always represent your client to the best of your ability.”
While some thought he was intimidating given his legendary status, Emas said, Block actually was “a teddy bear, a kind gentleman beyond being a wonderful lawyer. He taught so many of us about the law and to have love for the law.”
Herald agreed. Like Emas, she also worked at Fine Jacobson and the two remained friends after the firm shut down in 1994.
“He was a civil rights champion when it was dangerous and not fashionable,” she said, remembering how his life was threatened when he represented Pitts and Lee. “He just always believed that all people deserved representation and they deserved excellence regardless of their socio-economic status, race or ethnicity.”
Attorney Joseph Serota credits Block for teaching him how to be a lawyer.
“He always believed that being a lawyer was a very noble thing to do,” he said. He remembers Block giving him the chance to sit in on a U.S. Supreme Court case because he thought it would be a good learning opportunity.
“That’s the kind of man he was,” he said.
About 18 years ago, Block moved from Pinecrest to Boynton Beach in Palm Beach County to be closer to his grandchildren. But he was still practicing, Herald said.
“He was an avid sailor; he loved to sail his boat,” she said. “He is and was a passionate family man; he worshiped his wife, Doris, and his girls, and grandchildren.”
His granddaughter Jennifer Thaler said she makes decisions by asking herself, “What would Papa do?”
“He was always thinking about other people,” she said. “That is how his mind worked.”
Doris said as good as he was at his job, he was an even better husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
“There will never, ever in this world be another Irwin Block,” she said. “I held that man until his last breath and I know what kind of man he was.”
In addition to his wife and granddaughter, Block is survived by his four daughters Sharon Creasy, Victoria Smith, Ivy Gomberg and Gayle Bryan, his sister Edith Stubins, seven other grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held at 3 p.m. Monday at Beth Israel Memorial Chapel, 11115 Jog Rd., Boynton Beach.
Instead of flowers, the family asks that gifts in his memory be made to support cancer research at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, P.O. Box 016960, Miami, FL 33101.