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ABA Journal

Judy Clarke has a knack for keeping her notorious clients off death row

Posted Dec 6, 2013 7:37 PM CDT
By Kevin Davis

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In a South Carolina courtroom 18 years ago, Judy Clarke stood before a jury of nine men and three women and tried to humanize a client who had committed a horrific and inhuman act. Susan Smith at first claimed that a black man carjacked her and her two sons. She later admitted her story was a hoax.

That day, Smith was found guilty of drowning Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months. She was facing the death penalty. Clarke was asking that her life be spared.

“This is not a case about evil but a case of sadness and despair,” Clarke, a public defender, told jurors inside the old Union County Courthouse. “She made a terrible decision with a confused mind and a heart without hope. Hopelessness is not malice.”

Two and a half hours later, the jury came back and said Smith did not deserve to die. She was instead sentenced to life in prison and would live with the knowledge that she deliberately sent her children buckled inside a car into a lake to their deaths.

The case brought Clarke’s name into the national spotlight and set the stage for a career in which she would become known as the lawyer who keeps killers off death row. An avowed death penalty opponent, her specialty is seeing the humanity and vulnerability in clients accused of some of the most terrible crimes, and seeking a measure of mercy for them so that they may live.

During the Smith trial, Clarke and lead counsel David Bruck created a portrait of a sad, abused and damaged woman whose father committed suicide when she was 6 and whose stepfather molested her when she was a teenager. “When we talk about Susan Smith’s life, we are not trying to gain your sympathy,” Clarke told the jury. “We’re trying to gain your understanding.”

Getting jurors to understand her clients has become the hallmark of Clarke’s work, inspired in large part by the Smith case. In a speech to students at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles this past April, Clarke said she was “sucked into the black hole, the vortex” of the death penalty while representing Smith. “I got a dose of understanding human behavior and I learned what the death penalty does to us,” she said, according to an Associated Press account.

Since the Smith trial, Clarke has represented some of the highest-profile murder defendants in contemporary American history: Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui; Atlanta Olympics serial bomber Eric Rudolph; and Jared Lee Loughner, who killed a federal judge and five other people, and wounded former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others. All of Clarke’s clients have been spared death.

Click here to read the rest of "Finding humanity in the inhumane" from the December issue of the ABA Journal.

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