A Defender Who’s No Stranger to High-Profile Cases
Published: January 10, 2011
The capital-defense lawyer who will represent Jared L. Loughner in the shootings in Tucson, Judy Clarke, is a well-known public defender who gets life sentences in cases that often begin with emotional calls for the death penalty.
Troy Maben/Associated Press
Ms. Clarke has helped a number of infamous defendants avoid death sentences, including Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Eric Robert Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympics bomber; and Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her toddlers.
Over a legal career of more than 30 years, Ms. Clarke has become perhaps the best-known federal public defender in the country, with a reputation for taking on cases that seem impossible.
“She has stood up to the plate in the kinds of cases that bring the greatest disdain from the public,” said Gerald H. Goldstein, a San Antonio lawyer who has known her for years.
Ms. Clarke has an aversion to the news media and an unassuming courtroom style that masks an encyclopedic knowledge of criminal law. Her low-key style and pageboy haircut can make her seem at first to be a junior member of the legal team.
But lawyers who have worked with her say she is a master strategist in death-penalty cases.
“She is known for being the criminal defense lawyers’ criminal defense lawyer,” said Norman L. Reimer, the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
In recent years, Ms. Clarke has been in private practice in San Diego with her husband, Thomas H. Speedy Rice, a law professor, but has continued to take public-defender assignments.
Ms. Clarke did not respond to requests for comment, but friends said she would be drawn to the Tucson case. She is an opponent of the death penalty, they said, not only as a political position but also because of her experiences delving into the tangled stories of her clients.
“Judy would probably say if the public saw everything she sees, it would look at the client or the case differently,” said David I. Bruck, a veteran death-penalty lawyer and a professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., who has known Ms. Clarke since law school.
Mr. Bruck brought her in to work with him in defending Ms. Smith in the drowning case in the mid-1990s. Ms. Clarke’s approach often turns death-penalty defendants into confidants who must trust her with their lives. But it does not necessarily win friends outside of the courthouse.
After Ms. Clarke arrived from the West Coast to take on the Smith case, the South Carolina Legislature passed a law banning the future appointment of public defenders from out of state in capital cases.
After Ms. Clarke completed Ms. Smith’s case, she returned to the state the $82,944 fee that the trial judge had approved for her work, saying it was needed for the defense of other indigent people facing charges.
Ms. Clarke grew up in Asheville, N.C., in a conservative Republican family. She has said her parents tried to foster independent thinking. That came to the fore in the 1990s, when her mother, Patsy Clarke, helped lead a campaign to unseat Jesse Helms, the longtime Republican senator.
Mr. Helms had infuriated the family by telling the Clarkes in a letter that a brother of Judy’s, Mark Clarke, who had died of AIDS at 31, had “played Russian roulette in his sexual activity.”
Quin Denvir, a public defender who handled the Unabomber case with Ms. Clarke, said she had worked carefully to avoid a capital sentence, though Mr. Kaczynski ultimately turned against his lawyers. “She has a great sense,” Mr. Denvir said, “of how to put a case together to go for life instead of death.”