Over 20 years, lawyer Judy Clarke has represented the most notorious murder defendants in modern American history, including Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Now she is trying to keep Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev off death row.
BOSTON — She’s the attorney who helped spare the Unabomber from the death penalty, though Ted Kaczynski never forgave her for trying to make him look insane.
She saved Susan Smith’s life, too, by convincing jurors that the vilified South Carolina mother who drowned her two sons was a fragile victim of sexual abuse who should not be executed.
In 20 years as a defense attorney, Judy Clarke has represented the most notorious murder defendants in modern American history, including Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph and Jared Loughner, who tried to assassinate U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others.
Every time, Clarke has either negotiated plea deals in exchange for a life sentence or persuaded jurors to spare her client’s life.
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Now she is faced with what could be the stiffest challenge yet to that perfect record: keeping Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev off death row.
Lesley “Lee” Coggiola, an attorney who worked with Clarke on the Smith case, said she is worried that Tsarnaev may be the first client Clarke cannot save, because the government’s evidence appears strong and Bostonians are so traumatized by the April 15, 2013, terrorist attack that jurors may be willing to buck the state’s usual opposition to capital punishment.
Tsarnaev is expected to be found guilty this week when the first phase of the trial ends. That’s hardly a surprise, given Clarke’s admission during opening statements that Tsarnaev planted one of the two bombs that killed three people and injured 260 more.
Clarke, 63, will try to portray the 21-year-old as a confused college student from a broken home, a loner manipulated by his more radicalized older brother, and, most important to Clarke, a human life that should not be tossed away, even if he spends the rest of it in prison with no parole.
After representing Smith, Clarke became one of the nation’s leading opponents of the death penalty. She has argued that Smith and her subsequent clients are not monsters, but instead broken, mentally ill victims themselves.
In 1994, Susan Smith strapped her two young sons into the family car and rolled it down the ramp at a lake. She claimed she was carjacked but later confessed her story was a lie. Prosecutors said Smith, separated from her husband, wanted to kill the children because she feared her new boyfriend did not want the responsibility of a family.
Coggiola said it was this case that persuaded Clarke to make anti-death-penalty advocacy largely her life’s work. Clarke highlighted Smith’s sexual abuse as a child and the pressures of motherhood. She developed a strategy to present the defendant as a “whole person” who made one horrible mistake, Coggiola said.
“One of the things Judy has always been so good at doing is saying, ‘You don’t judge people by their worst day, or their worst event,’ ” Coggiola said.
Her forte has always been to work hardest in the pretrial phase, hunting for an opening for a plea bargain.
Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, was charged with sending explosives through the mail that killed three people and injured a dozen more. In 1998, with his trial approaching, he tried unsuccessfully to fire Clarke because she was working up an insanity defense without his permission.
He eventually pleaded guilty and accepted life in prison, primarily to prevent Clarke, whom the judge would not let him fire, from arguing he was mentally ill, according to a recent Vanity Fair article.
In Tucson, Ariz., she won a plea bargain for Loughner’s life when the court ruled he was mentally incompetent when he wounded Giffords and killed six others. He was clearly troubled. In one pretrial hearing, he leapt from his seat screaming and was subdued by U.S. Marshals.