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Climbing for a cause: Schlakman scales Mt. Rainier to raise funds for the Innocence Project.

With an ice ax in one hand and a rope in the other, Mark Schlakman, a Florida lawyer turned mountaineer, felt the grit of rock pelting his face as he leaned into 60-mile-an-hour winds howling on Mt. Rainier in Washington.

There were those moments during treacherous footing over ever-moving glaciers and gasping for breath in oxygen-deprived wind tunnels at more than 2 miles high, when Schlakman asked himself: Why am I doing this?

But, of course, he knew the answer. He was climbing for a cause: to raise awareness and funds for the Innocence Project of Florida, Inc., in Tallahassee, where he serves as board chair.

In a blast e-mail to 65,000 Florida Bar members sent before his September 27-29 adventure, Schlakman wrote:

"I am motivated by the oath that all of us took as new lawyers, venturing out beyond our comfort zones on behalf of those whose freedom has been unjustly denied, who have fallen through the cracks in the system, and who have been wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit.

"Will you step up with me? All that we ask is a penny per foot. The math is simple ... the summit is 14,411 feet high, making the total requested contribution of only $144.11."

Some Florida lawyers replied with hearty encouragement and promises to help the organization whose core funding comes from The Florida Bar Foundation's Administration of Justice Grants and the Vital Projects Fund.

But one Florida prosecutor responded in an e-mail to Schlakman: "By wrongfully convicted, I assume you mean people like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson, or Jostin Drayton who poured gasoline on a man and set him on fire because the man owed him $600.

"When you reach the top of the mountain, I suggest you take a deep breath of fresh air and remember the thousands of innocent victims who are wrongfully murdered every day by people who later claim they were wrongfully convicted."

Calling it a "teaching moment," Schlakman emphasizes the Innocence Project helps the wrongfully convicted prove their actual innocence with DNA testing, like Alan Crotzer, who spent more than half his life--24 years, six months, 13 days, and four hours in prison--for a 1981 rape, kidnapping, and robbery he did not commit. Innocence Project lawyers in New York and DNA evidence freed Crotzer from prison in 2006.

In 2008, the Florida Legislature awarded Crotzer $1.25 million and Gov. Charlie Crist granted him a full pardon.

All lawyers, including prosecutors, should care about the fair administration of justice and making sure the guilty are convicted and the innocent are freed, Schlakman said.

"As Florida lawyers, whatever we do, whether it is civil or criminal or whatever particular specialty--trademark, corporate, trust, and estate--there's a responsibility and obligation to serve the cause of justice," Schlakman said.

"That is the thought process that led to this admittedly rather bizarre concept to climb Mt. Rainier."

After receiving instruction on how to tromp efficiently through snow wearing spiky crampons clamped to his boots and discussing such topics as glaciology and vulcanology, Schlakman crashed in a shelter hut at Camp Muir, the starting point for the climb at 10,080 feet.

As fate would have it, wind from the Northwest's first autumn storm blew through, reminding Schlakman of the time he rode out Hurricane Betsy when he lived in South Florida--except this force of nature was freezing cold.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

At midnight, they began the climb of four hours to ascend to the crater rim and made it only as far as Disappointment Clever, at 12,500 feet.

"We couldn't get all the way to the top, but we made it most of the way. There was concern of people actually getting blown off the mountain," said Schlakman, who was roped in with Craig Van Hoy, a mountaineering guide with Alpine Ascents, who has climbed Kilimanjaro, Mt. Everest, and Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.

"The trails are snow fields, and we are navigating glaciers and zigzagging across crevices. We are perched precariously on trails known for rocks falls, so we make our way through those areas as quickly as we can," Schlakman recounts.

"We take short rests along the way to hydrate and eat. As it is often cold, these rest stops are frequent but short in duration.

"Our goal is to keep a moderate yet steady pace, which allows us to keep warm during the early morning hours."

With the grit from the rocks pelting him like a sandblaster, Schlakman said, "It was anything but a walk in the park, which only underscored that conditions on the mountain can change very quickly and dramatically. That's why we carried so much gear to adjust to those conditions, and why our backpacks weighed about 50 to 60 pounds."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

After taking the red-eye flight home September 30, Schlakman sounded weary when he said, "My legs are completely shot, with cuts and bruises."

Even though he's a marathon runner, Schlakman said he never would have made it without six weeks working with personal trainer Stephen D'Attile at Gold's Gym for strength and endurance training.

While scaling Mt. Rainier was a huge challenge, he said, "It pales by comparison to what those who have been wrongfully convicted confront every day."

For more information, contact The Innocence Project of Florida, Inc., 1100 East Park Avenue, Tallahassee 32308, or go to floridainnocence.org.

By Jan Pudlow

Senior Editor
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Title Annotation:Florida lawyer Mark Schlakman
Author:Pudlow, Jan
Publication:Florida Bar News
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Oct 15, 2009
Words:904
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