Judy Clarke has defended some of the most infamous murders and terrorists in the U.S., from Susan Smith, who drowned her children, to “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, to the so-called 20th hijacker who didn’t make it onto the planes that struck on Sept. 11, 2001.
Though those defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison, Clarke, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has developed a reputation as an expert on asserting mental disability or defect as a defense, and has managed to keep many killers off death row.
Her newest assignment is Jared Lee Loughner, charged with the attempted assassination of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of U.S. District Judge John Roll in a Jan. 8 shooting spree in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six and wounded more than a dozen. Clarke was appointed yesterday to represent Loughner in Phoenix federal court.
The Federal Public Defender’s Office in Arizona asked a Phoenix judge to appoint Clarke lead attorney for Loughner, 22, who is also accused of killing Gabriel Zimmerman, a member of Giffords’s staff, and attempting to murder two other staffers. Loughner may face the death penalty if convicted.
Clarke, a former U.S. public defender in San Diego and Spokane, Washington, who is now in private practice in San Diego, is known as an expert on death penalty cases, especially those in which mental illness is an issue.
“There are very few attorneys in the country with her degree of experience,” Karen Hewitt, a former U.S. Attorney for San Diego, said in an interview. “In a case like this that is fraught with emotion and is such a difficult case, she seems to be the prime person to handle it.”
Heather Williams, first assistant federal public defender for Arizona, said Clarke was asked to take the case after Williams’s office found there could be an appearance of a conflict of interest because its attorneys practiced before Roll, who was chief judge for the Arizona federal courts. Clarke declined to comment, according to the defender’s office.
Roll was also involved in approving the list of lawyers who could receive court-appointed defense work. Additionally, Williams said, the state doesn’t have many attorneys who are qualified to handle death penalty cases.
‘Not Far Away’
“We wanted to get someone who was not far away and who would not have a conflict of interest,” Williams said. “She was available, she’s experienced in death penalty cases, and she was willing to undertake the representation.”
U.S. Magistrate Lawrence Anderson also approved the appointment Clarke and another San Diego lawyer, Mark Fleming, at Loughner’s first court appearance yesterday.
Manny Tarango, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke in Phoenix, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment yesterday.
Clarke, during yesterday’s hearing, said that all federal prosecutors in Arizona should step down from the case. If the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona doesn’t recuse itself, Clarke was told by the judge that she could file a motion to disqualify the office.
Lawyers who have worked with Clarke describe her as a “straight-shooter” with little ego and no agenda other than defending her clients. Most of the death penalty-eligible cases she has handled, these lawyers said, resulted in plea agreements before trial.
“She is able to defuse all the emotions that come with murder cases like this,” said David Bruck, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, who worked with Clarke on the Smith defense. “She was able to bring Ted Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph to settlement and true finality instead of eye-gouging fights in the courts that can last for years.”
Death Penalty Cases
Clarke’s work on high-profile death penalty cases began with the defense of Susan Smith in 1995. Smith, of Union, South Carolina, was accused of drowning her young sons by driving her car into a lake. The case garnered national attention because Smith initially told the police that she had been carjacked and went on television to ask that her children be freed. She later confessed to the murders.
Bruck, who led Smith’s defense, said he asked Clarke, a former classmate from the University of South Carolina, to help with the case.
Clarke was able to persuade the jury not to impose the death penalty by arguing that Smith suffered from mental illness and the murders were the result of a botched suicide attempt. Smith was sentenced to life in prison.
“She fought hard, no doubt, but I never really felt a negativity,” Tommy Pope, a prosecutor on the Smith case, said in an interview. “They did a good job and they got the result they were working towards.”
Clarke went on to represent convicted 1996 Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph and al Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, who prosecutors said planned to join the 19 men who crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. In those cases, the defendant’s mental state was a factor. Both men are serving life sentences.
“She’s had a long history of representing high-profile defendants suffering from severe mental illness,” said Washington lawyer Barry Boss, who represented accused Capitol Hill shooter Russell Weston. “There is probably nobody in the country more knowledgeable or experienced in defending such cases as Judy.”
The Arizona case is U.S. v. Loughner, 2:11-mj-00035, U.S. District Court, District of Arizona (Phoenix).