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Should I Get Inside an Alleged Killer's Mind to Represent Him?

By Jason Beahm on March 03, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A criminal defense specialist named Judy Clarke may soon cement her reputation as the most high profile of public defenders. The New York Times recently profiled Clarke, whose client is Jared Loughner, the man charged in the Jan. 8 Arizona shooting rampage. Clarke has already begun making motions on his behalf, Loughner has pleaded not guilty.

Clarke's efforts to develop a rapport with Loughner is noteworthy, as in federal death penalty cases, earning the trust, or even just the acceptance of the client is often a crucial matter, even more so in cases of potential mental illness. 

Judy Clarke is known for being able to get close to people in tough situations, by listening to them and seeking to understand who they are. It isn't always easy; she has had clients threaten to fire her and kill her. With clients like Theodore J. Kaczynski and the al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui, that's no surprise

According to Michael First, it will be interesting to see which way Jared Loughner wants to go. Will he acknowledge that his is mentally ill, or will he insist that he is perfectly sane?

Clarke is known for initially trying to get her clients moved into better accomodations early and for relaying messages to defendant's families. She is already doing the same for Jared Loughner.

It's often said that in a death penalty case, the best reasonable objective for the defense is to spare the client from the death penalty. To that extent, Clarke works to persuade jurors to not to vote for the death penalty because of a "mitigating social history." She details the mental illness, or abuse that the defendant experienced throughout his or her life.

The Times piece focuses on the two sides of Clarke, sides that any lawyer who wants to be great should possess.

"I like the antagonism. I like the adversarial nature of the business. I love all of that," Clarke once told the Los Angeles Times. But she also has a softer side.

"Even people who are quite mentally ill can identify someone who is real and who wants to protect them ... She's a great listener, and she's focused on the client. She tries to understand the client. The client becomes her world," said David Bruck, a colleague and lawyer at Washington and Lee University's School of Law.

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