Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Unabomber Lawyer is Saint of Lost Causes

Saint of Lost CausesThe release of a trove of prison writings from the Unabomber is shining a spotlight on one of his defense lawyers.

Judy Clarke, who was raised in Asheville and attended Furman and the University of South Carolina law school, has been called the saint of hopeless cases.

Her client roster over the past 25 years includes some of the most infamous names in history: Susan Smith, Ted Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph, Jared Lee Loughner and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

“Judy is sort of the defense lawyer’s saint of lost causes, taking cases no one thinks can come out with a good result,” says friend and Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson in this 2013 ABA Journal article headlined Judy Clarke Has a Knack For Keeping Notorious Clients Off Death Row. “And she comes out with the best result you can. Her clients are not, by and large, exonerated. They do not walk among us. But things don’t end up for them as badly as people initially thought they would.”

Clarke is also known for being media-shy and rarely giving interviews – which sets her apart from other high-profile lawyers.

“She’s really, really modest, and she’s really humble,” said Levenson. “I think she sees this as her mission as a lawyer. I’m a former prosecutor who’s a huge admirer because I think she’s the real thing.”

Putting a Human Face on Horror

Despite her aversion to publicity, Clarke was thrust into the news when a stash of correspondence and other documents from Ted Kaczynski went public. Some of the letters reveal his respect – even affection – for her.

“I find her personality so attractive that I think I enjoy talking with her more than any other person I have ever known,” he wrote in a January 1998 missive. “Is she a friend or an enemy? In practical terms, she is an enemy of me and of everything I stand for, but in terms of personal relations, she is very friendly toward me, and I have warm feelings of friendship toward her.”

This has become her trademark. Faced with overwhelming evidence of her clients’ guilt, she spends hours and hours getting to know them. Her goal is to open a window into their lives that might persuade a jury to spare them from death.

“It started out as Susan the monster and evolved into Susan the victim,” says the prosecutor in the Susan Smith trial. “One of the things [Judy] did was humanize the defendant…. As her opponent, I respect her. With her, it’s not drama; it’s not theatrics. But there is an intensity.”

Representation is a Rollercoaster

Clarke was appointed to Kaczynski’s case in 1996, not long after his arrest at a remote cabin in Montana. His early letters show how much he liked and trusted her. Some are almost love notes.

But the relationship soured when he learned his lawyers planned to mount an insanity defense (court psychiatrists had diagnosed him as schizophrenic but able to stand trial) which they thought was the only way to save him from the death penalty. He accused his team of exploiting “a lonely man’s hunger for friendship in order to manipulate and deceive him.” He said he would rather die than spend the rest of his life behind bars. Much of his anger was directed at Clarke.

On the eve of his 1998 trial, he tried to fire his legal team and represent himself, but the judge blocked the effort. Eventually, he pled guilty in exchange for eight consecutive life sentences. Even as he did so, he raged at his attorneys — especially Clarke — for reinforcing “the public’s perception of me as a madman.” He presently resides at a federal supermax facility in Colorado.

Meanwhile, Clarke moved on to other high-profile cases like the Boston Marathon bomber.

No matter how horrible the crime, Levenson says Clarke sees her clients as real people, not monsters. “The world sees the criminal act, and Clarke tries to understand what caused them to do it.”


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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