Expert in Keeping Notorious Killers Alive Joins Tsarnaev Defense Team

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Judy Clarke. Photo: Reed Saxon

Judy Clarke has defended some of the most reviled killers, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, and Tucson shooter Jared Loughner, and managed to secure life sentences for them rather than the death penalty. Now she'll attempt to do the same for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. On Monday, a judge approved a request from one the three federal public defenders assigned to Tsarnaev's case, asking that Clarke be allowed to join their team because, "In light of the circumstances in this case, the defendant requires an attorney with more background, knowledge and experience in federal death penalty cases than that possessed by current counsel."

Clarke rarely speaks about her work publicly, but during a speech Friday at a legal conference in Los Angeles she described how she was "sucked into the black hole, the vortex" of death penalty cases when she represented Susan Smith, the woman who drowned her two sons in 1994. "I got a dose of understanding human behavior, and I learned what the death penalty does to us," she said. "I don't think it's a secret that I oppose the death penalty."

While speaking to an audience of legal professionals and students at Loyola Law School's annual Fidler Institute on Criminal Justice, Clarke said she first tries to connect with her client by figuring out "what brought them to this day that will define the rest of their lives." Usually she finds an underlying mental health issue, and "most have suffered from serious severe trauma, unbelievable trauma." Clarke added that many death penalty clients are also unwilling to plead guilty when she first meets them. "They're looking into the lens of life in prison in a box," she said. "Our job is to provide them with a reason to live."

It's too early for prosecutors to say whether they'll seek the death penalty for Tsarnaev, but the addition of Clarke hints at what can be expected in the 19-year-old's trial. “That is her M.O. — 
negotiating with the federal prosecutors and establishing a connection with her clients so that they are open and willing to plead guilty knowing that they are facing life in prison,” Tamar R. Birckhead, who defended “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, tells the Boston Herald. “It seems like there’s a good possibility that’s how things will be resolved."