The common man has lost one of his best advocates.
John Clark, a prominent local defense attorney, died this morning following a long battle with cancer. He was 58.
Earlier this year, the Spokane Bar Association honored Clark with the 2010 Smithmoore P. Myers Professionalism Award for Clark’s passion in working — often without pay — to help residents in legal trouble.
“There was once a comment made by Gandhi,” said Robert Crary, Clark’s partner of 30 years told The Spokesman-Review in March “that nobody is beyond redemption. It’s the way (Clark) looks at the world.” Diagnosed in 2008 with cancer of the appendix, the disease spread to his bones. Yet he did not allow his illness to keep him from his work. He worked until recently, often with judges asking for extra time so Clark could make it to the podium.
“Every day is a gift,” Clark said earlier this year. When Spokane police arrested two dozen youths on July 4, 2007, in Riverfront Park, Clark not only offered free legal help but also found other attorneys willing to work with the young people for free to get nearly all the charges dismissed. In June 2009, Clark likewise responded when Cheney police arrested 35 youths as they arrived at a party that had been advertised on Facebook.
“The minute he heard about it, he hustled out to the arraignment and offered to represent anyone who wanted an attorney for free,” said Clark’s paralegal, Jan Lee. Again, Clark got charges dismissed for nearly all of the youths.
“When John gets going he’s like a mini-tornado,” Lee said. “I’m sure other attorneys will dispute this, but he knows absolutely everything about the law. I adore working for him.”
His health forced the former race car driver to decide what to do with the time he has left. Spurning any suggestions about sandy beaches or even holing up in his cabin near Northport, Clark kept a busy schedule with his first love, the law, said his wife, Superior Court Judge Ellen Kalama Clark.
“He likes to see himself as protecting the underdog,” she said in March. “We would get calls at 2 or 3 in the morning from someone about a DUI or ‘cops are at my door.’ A lot of attorneys would say, ‘Call me later.’ But he would jump out of bed.
“He loves the challenge of that, the adrenaline. It drove me crazy for a while, but I got used to it.”
She wasn’t the only one. When the Clarks’ son, Steven, was 5, someone in trouble called for John, who was away at the time.
“Steven says, ‘Just tell them to tell the police that I’ve done nothing wrong, I’ve got nothing to hide and to call my lawyer,’” Ellen Clark said. “He knew the drill at 5. To this day, my son tells his friends to say that.”
Whenever John Clark represented the friends of his son or daughter, Allison, he charged them a plate of chocolate chip cookies.
“He has a strong belief that people are generally good and they deserve a second chance, or a third, or fourth …” Ellen Clark said. “Sometimes it gets frustrating in my job. I have people come before me who have done bad things and they deserve to be punished. John mostly thinks the punishment is too much. So, we have some interesting discussions.”
John Clark also thinks everybody should go to law school. In fact, it was his challenge that convinced Ellen Clark to follow him to Gonzaga.
“It’s just a tremendous honor to be authorized by the government to represent another person in a dispute, whether it’s with an insurance company or with a neighbor over a fence,” John Clark said in the earlier interview. “It is just a tremendous honor to do that. Every day, I’m just amazed about how exciting this job can be.”
Clark joined with Crary and Jim Domanico right out of law school; they’ve been together 30 years.
“We worked like brothers, played like brothers and at times we fought like brothers,” Crary said.
Clark’s propensity to give offenders multiple chances or to provide free legal help to someone he encounters in Spokane County District Court has sometimes caused concern for the partners, Crary said.
“Why are you representing this bum again? Yet all of the sudden, I could cite you numerous cases where that person would come back … who had transformed himself,” Crary said. “I can’t help but think that John had some play in that because he didn’t give up on them.
“It’s a love of his fellow man. It’s love for this profession because this profession gave him the ability to do what he loves to do.”
That love perhaps received its toughest test in January 2009 when Clark found himself in a Spokane Valley drug store with a knife to his throat. The suspect, 25-year-old Michael A. Miller, threatened to harm Clark if the pharmacist didn’t hand over OxyContin and methadone.
Miller was later caught and Clark went to Miller’s sentencing to ask the judge for leniency. He then wished the man good luck as a deputy handcuffed Miller and took him to jail.
“There is a spot for him back in the community,” Clark said of Miller in August 2009. “I know he is going to get through this.”