SAN DIEGO » The attorney for a 22-year-old loner accused of trying to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has a low-key style and a record of saving high-profile clients from the death penalty.
Judy Clarke worked on plea agreements that spared "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph, who bombed abortion clinics in the late 1990s and Atlanta’s Olympic park in 1996. She was on a team that negotiated a plea that avoided death for white supremacist Buford Furrow Jr., who shot up a Jewish center in Los Angeles in 1999.
She also helped persuade a jury to spare the life of Susan Smith, who strapped her sons in their car seats and let her car roll into a South Carolina lake in 1994, carrying the boys to their deaths.
Colleagues describe Clarke, 58, as a tireless advocate for her clients and a staunch opponent of the death penalty who shuns the spotlight.
Her lack of ego is "so uncharacteristic among criminal defense lawyers that it’s almost freakish," said David Bruck, a close friend since they attended law school at the University of South Carolina and her co-counsel for Smith.
"She’ll be invisible to the press," Bruck said. "She won’t give you two minutes between now and when the trial is over unless there’s a very good reason having to do with her client’s defense. She will never get in front of the cameras just to be in front of the cameras."
Clarke, who was raised in Asheville, N.C., has called San Diego home for much of the last 30 years. Her passion and skill at defending death penalty cases have made her a hot commodity across the country, and she travels frequently.
"Some of these cases are not about, ‘Is the defendant guilty?"’ said Quin Denvir, her co-counsel on the Unabomber case. "It’s about what the sentence is going to be. That could be true in this case."
Jared Loughner potentially faces the death penalty on charges of trying to kill the Arizona congresswoman in a shooting spree Saturday. In total, six died and 14 were injured or wounded in the assault outside a Tucson supermarket.
Among the dead was a 9-year-old girl who was born on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a federal judge and one of Giffords’ aides.
Bruck said Clarke has been able to strike deals with prosecutors that initially seemed out of the question.
Furrow stormed a Los Angeles Jewish center packed with children and fired 70 bullets, injuring five people, and then killed a Filipino-American letter carrier by shooting him nine times. In reaching a plea deal that spared him the death penalty, Clarke highlighted Furrow’s history of mental problems and how he tried to get help without success.
"The issues in a death penalty case are often not who did it or what did the person do but who is this person?" said Bruck, a professor at Washington and Lee University. "Judy knows how to approach that question."
Tommy Pope, who argued for the death penalty as lead prosecutor against Smith, said the defense team succeeded at casting their client as sympathetic, even though she killed her children.
"Their goal and their task will be to humanize (Loughner)," said Pope, now a South Carolina legislator. "In Smith, they did, and it was effective."
Clarke, who didn’t respond to phone messages Monday, told the San Antonio Express-News in 1996 that she wanted to be a lawyer since she was 11 or 12 years old and has always been an advocate for the underdog.
"I thought it would be neat to be Perry Mason and win all the time," she said.
She headed the federal public defender’s office in San Diego from 1983 to 1991 and in Spokane, Wash., from 1992 to 2002. She is married to Speedy Rice, a law professor at Washington and Lee who focuses on international law and human rights.
Mario Conte, who teaches at California Western School of Law in San Diego and has known Clarke since 1980, said her passion against the death penalty is unique among criminal defense lawyers.
"There are a lot of us who are very philosophically opposed in our line of work, but Judy certainly takes it to another level," he said.