John Henry Browne, lawyer for the U.S. soldier suspected in the shooting deaths of 16 Afghan civilians, has a history of defending clients in multiple-homicide cases, including serial killer Ted Bundy and mass murderer Benjamin Ng.
Today, he is to meet with Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Bales, who hasn’t been charged with a crime, is suspected of going on a rampage three months into his first tour of duty in Afghanistan after three deployments to Iraq. The Army said in a memo to Congress that the soldier hiked to two villages close to his base near Kandahar city on March 11 to commit the killings.
Browne, 65, who was chief trial lawyer in the King County Office of the Public Defender in Seattle before going into private practice, has also made a name for himself in 40 years as an attorney by representing arsonists, a shoeless airplane thief and a man accused of killing a celebrity dog trainer.
“He seems to thrive on controversial cases, and he gets good outcomes for his clients,” said Richard Hansen, whom Browne hired in 1976 to work as a public defender in Seattle.
Emma Scanlan, an associate of Browne, said yesterday he will meet with Bales at the military prison.
“Sergeant Bales’ family is stunned in the face of this tragedy, but they stand behind the man they know as a devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed services,” the defense lawyers said in an earlier statement.
“It is too early to determine what factors may have played into this incident and the defense team looks forward to reviewing the evidence,” including Bales’s medical and personnel records, and interviewing witnesses, they said.
The stress of a fourth deployment, a troubled marriage and alcohol use appear to have combined to provoke the killings, a U.S. official briefed on the case has said.
At a press conference at his Seattle office on March 15, Browne disputed that account.
“This is a very strong marriage,” Browne said. “There’s a lot of love, a lot of respect, two children.”
There were no incidents of domestic violence “whatsoever” and no indication alcohol had played a part in the alleged attack, Browne said.
If convicted of murder after a military trial, the suspect may face a death sentence, said Eugene Fidell, former president of the National Institute of Military Justice.
The soldier will have a preliminary hearing, where a military judge will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a court-martial, said Fidell, who teaches military justice classes at Yale University. There is no bail in military proceedings, he said.
Browne graduated from American University School of Law in 1971, according to his law firm. He worked as an assistant attorney general in Washington state before joining the public defender’s office in 1975.
Last year, Browne represented airplane thief Colton Harris-Moore, known as the “Barefoot Bandit” because he committed some of his crimes while not wearing shoes. Moore pleaded guilty to the plane theft and other charges and is serving a 6 1/2-year prison sentence.
Bundy assaulted or killed three dozen women across the U.S., according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted fugitives when he was caught in February 1978. He was executed in Florida in 1989.
Browne was counsel for Benjamin Ng, who was convicted in the killing of 13 people in Seattle in 1983. Ng was spared a death sentence.
Browne also represented Michiel Oakes, who was convicted of killing Mark Stover, a dog trainer who worked for Starbucks Corp. Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz and Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Oakes got a 26 1/2-year sentence in 2010, the Seattle Times reported.
Prosecutors who worked on the Oakes and Harris-Moore cases declined to discuss their experiences with Browne or didn’t respond to calls seeking comment.
Browne, although not a regular on the military circuit, is highly competent as a defense lawyer and a reasonable choice as counsel because he’s from “that part of the country,” Fidell said.
“In serious cases, people who can afford it will hire a civilian,” he said. “There aren’t that many civilian lawyers who do these cases.”
While lawyers from the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps will provide assistance, Browne will steer the case and make the strategic decisions, Fidell said.
In the Afghan attack, 11 of those killed were allegedly gathered into one home and set on fire, Lal Mohammed, an elder from Zangabad, the area where the incident occurred, said by phone. Afterward, Bales walked back to base and surrendered, according to Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, spokesman for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai “to express his shock and sadness” and pledged “to hold fully accountable anyone responsible,” according to a White House statement. Karzai said the incident shows “great oppression and cruelty” toward the people of Afghanistan, according to a statement from his office.
Evidence gathering for the soldier’s hearing could be difficult because of the incident’s location, Fidell said. The hostility of villagers and Muslim law requiring bodies to be buried quickly and without an autopsy also pose obstacles to prosecution, according to Fidell.
Investigators will collect as much evidence as possible ahead of the preliminary hearing, Fidell said.
“That’s assuming they’re getting assistance from the villagers instead of being shot at,” he said.
The last soldier executed by the military was Army private John Arthur Bennett, Fidell said. Bennett, convicted of raping and attempting to murder an 11-year-old Austrian girl, was executed by hanging in 1961. A handful of army prisoners are being held on death row at the U.S. disciplinary barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Fidell said.
“No one can be executed without the affirmative personal approval of the president,” Fidell said.
Defense lawyers represent unpopular clients to protect the legal process, said Hansen, the former public defender.
“The tough cases tend to warp the system in a bad way,” Hansen said in a phone interview. “The public becomes acutely aware of the most horrendous crimes so the laws tend to get ramped up because of the most atypical cases.”