Jared Lee Loughner’s appearance in court yesterday is the first step in what will surely be a very long legal battle. As a former courts/cops reporter, I think it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. Most people seem to be trying to talk about it in a political context – is Sarah Palin responsible because she “targeted” Giffords? Is the over-heated rhetoric surrounding the healthcare bill the reason? Have we, as a nation, gone to far with our partisanship?
Talking heads will talk, but this case will hinge on something else – something controversial and heated. The death penalty.
Loughner is being represented by one of a close-knit group of well-respected and quite talented attorneys who maybe could’ve made millions as members of legal dream teams representing the wealthy and powerful in criminal cases, but instead have chosen to commit themselves to killing the death penalty. In this case, it’s Judy Clarke.
Clarke and a handful of other defense attorneys have a record of taking on clients with no money, and from the perspective of most legal experts, no hope in getting out of the legal system alive – literally. High-profile death penalty cases representing defendants who, frankly, nobody can stand and nobody thinks needs much of a trial is their specialty. I interviewed Clarke three years ago, while covering a death penalty case in New Hampshire. I called Clarke to talk about a colleague, David Bruck, who was representing the defendant in the case.
The notes from my interview with Clarke have long since gone missing, but in our discussion of Bruck she talked at length, and with great passion, about their shared ethos: the belief that the death penalty is inherently wrong, and the need for every defendant, no matter how loathed by the public, to get a fair trial.
Bruck is an enormously talented anti-death penalty advocate, who now only takes on a few cases, and usually only symbolic ones that make a point. And he’s Clarke’s mentor.
Bruck first made his name representing Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who strapped her children into the backseat of her car and pushed it into a lake, blaming their disappearance on a black man, before eventually confessing. Bruck asked Clarke to join him on the case – and they were successful. Not in getting Susan Smith off, but in getting her life in prison, not the death penalty. Fighting the death penalty became Bruck’s cause, and the case changed Clarke’s life, committing her to the same goal, she told me.
“David Bruck is the reason I do this work, and I alternate between blaming him and thanking him,” she said. “(Working with Bruck) completely changed my career.”
After working on the Smith case, Clarke went on to represent the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Zacarias Moussaoui (the “20th Hijacker), and Eric Rudolph. It’s interesting to note that several of her clients, like Kaczynski and Moussaoui, had bizarre, nonsensical or outlandish personal/political philosophies, and fought their own attorneys. But, ultimately, like most of Bruck’s clients (he has a nearly flawless record of getting his clients life sentences instead of death penalty, including the case I wrote about) most of Clarke’s highest-profile clients have not gone to the death chamber.
My article — “Legal Legend Heads to NH” – New Hampshire Union Leader, Feb. 19, 2008