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Bombing Suspect's Lawyer A Quiet Defender Of The Notorious

NPR icon by Jennifer Ludden
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Gregory Bull

Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Arizona mass shooter Jared Loughner all have one thing in common: defense attorney Judy Clarke. With her help, all three avoided the death penalty.

Clarke routinely faces an enraged public, top-notch prosecutors and difficult, often disturbed clients. Now, Clarke is soon to face those things again with another high-profile client, alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

With such notorious clients, you might assume Clarke is tough, aggressive and happy in the spotlight.

"The thing that was most surprising was that she was quieter, much less talkative than I thought she would be," says Christina Becker, a former law student of Clarke's at Washington and Lee University. She says Clarke seems utterly without ego, yet still commanding.

"She's someone that has a presence without having to verbalize it," she says. "She can be even disarming in her silence."

When she does speak up, Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School says Clarke's legal arguments are plain-spoken and no-nonsense.

"It's almost like you were sitting down at a dinner table and saying 'Hey Judy, what do you think of the legal system, what do you think of this case,'" Levenson says.

Levenson says this low-key manner helps Clarke with the delicate task of getting her clients to open up and accept her help.

"Don't forget that it's not been smooth sailing with all of her clients, and it'd be hard to expect that it would be," she says. "I mean someone like Ted Kasczynski, the Unabomber, doesn't really want to be around lawyers."

In fact, Kaczynski repeatedly tried to fire Clarke and represent himself. Yet in 1998, Clarke sounded sympathetic. She explained that her client simply couldn't bear basing his defense on admitting he was mentally ill.

"He has lived with this fear all his life. This is not manipulation," Clarke told reporters. "This is not cunning. This is not an attempt of someone to escape legal process; this is a very heartfelt reaction on his part."

Clarke rarely gives interviews, and did not return phone calls from NPR.

Clarke grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of conservative Republicans who say they fostered independent thinking in their children. It worked.

After a brother died of AIDS, Clarke reportedly persuaded her mother to come out against a longtime family friend, Sen. Jesse Helms. The politician was openly anti-gay, and had suggested Clarke's brother brought his death upon himself.

Clarke is also an ardent opponent of the death penalty. She's said that "a civilized society shouldn't legalize homicide." This, colleagues say, is what motivates her work.

"Judy would always say, the goal here is to save this guy's life," says Jonathan Shapiro, who teaches a class with Clarke at Washington and Lee.

Shapiro has turned to her for advice on how to build a client's trust. He says Clarke, who is also known for her great laugh and sense of humor, has endless patience and will spend whatever time it takes.

"If it's a matter of contacting a relative, you need to be able, the next time you see them, to say, 'Yes, I did,'" he says. "If it's making a complaint to the jail about conditions — they're not getting their medicine on time or whatever — you've got to do it."

Sometimes, Shapiro says, it can take a month or two before lawyer and client even start discussing the alleged crime. Another challenge is researching deep into a client's past in order to find telling details that will humanize them. Former student Christina Becker says this is the thing she'll most remember from Clarke.

"Something that she always says is that people shouldn't be, or don't want to be, judged by the worst thing they've done in their life," Becker says. "They might have done one terrible thing, but that doesn't mean that they're not a good father, or they're not someone's favorite aunt, or they didn't volunteer with the YMCA or something."

Finding that telling detail will be all the more difficult for Tsarnaev, since his family members live half-way across the globe.

A recent poll also finds that 70 percent of Americans support the death penalty for the 19-year-old, if he's convicted. But as Clarke has told jurors before, she's not trying to gain sympathy, just understanding.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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