We Are Knox...
Keith Belzer '85
2008 Alumni Achievement Award Winner
Keith Belzer '85, a nationally recognized trial attorney known for his work
defending impoverished and underprivileged clients, says that his success
in the field of criminal defense has been directly impacted by his education at Knox College.
Once planning to make a career out of theatre, Belzer spent his time on campus participating in plays and Rep Term, not preparing to defend those wronged by the criminal justice system. After graduating, he founded a theatre company in Chicago with the mission of using theatre to bring people together to work for social justice. However, Belzer soon decided that his desire to fight for social justice could be more fully realized with a law degree.
"Knox College forced me to graduate with a wide breadth of knowledge," he says, "and the ability to think across subject areas in a way that allowed me to easily translate skills in one profession to that of another profession." The analytical skills he learned at Knox served him well as he completed his law degree at Loyola University, but his skills in theatre shaped his success as an attorney.
With his defense of Scott Lawson against a Wisconsin county governmental unit, Belzer achieved the largest monetary award for a disabled individual in U.S. history. Reaching back into knowledge he gained as part of Knox's theater department, he constructed a life-size replica of a jail cell with Knox theatre professor Craig Choma '93 to show the conditions under which the mentally ill inmate had been held. The inmate, who was awarded a precedent-setting $5-million judgment, argued that his mental condition had deteriorated during the two months that he had been held in solitary confinement.
"The connection between the innovations I have brought to criminal defense trial practice and my education at Knox College is striking," he says. "I can think of nothing more valuable to a trial lawyer than a liberal arts education."
Much of Belzer's current work involves teaching criminal defense lawyers about the use of story and performance in the courtroom. When he began teaching this approach 20 years ago, it was respected by some and seen as "too liberal-artsy" by others, but the use of story-form is now being taught in most well-respected law school legal clinics across the nation.
"How can we communicate in a courtroom in a way that creates an empathetic response?" Belzer says. "By using our voices and bodies like actors on a stage; by writing a script from the available material that is complete, coherent, and compelling; by directing the action of the courtroom though placement of bodies and spatial relationships."
Belzer, who received an Alumni Achievement award in 2008 for his service in the legal field, is a frequent legal-affairs commentator on broadcasts such as Good Morning America, The O'Reilly Factor, and Geraldo at Large.