SEATTLE – A day before the public learned the name of the soldier accused of methodically slaughtering 16 civilians in Afghanistan, his lawyer called a news conference and sketched a different portrait of Robert Bales: that of a loving father and devoted husband who had been traumatized by a comrade’s injury and sent into combat one too many times.
The move was classic John Henry Browne. The charming, sometimes brash, media-savvy defense attorney had yet to meet his client and was already attempting to shape public perceptions.
“His best work is not in a court of law but really in a court of public opinion. He’s a master at humanizing his client, and that’s an important role,” said Dan Satterberg, chief prosecutor in King County, where Browne is based. “He is accessible and quotable. And he loves to talk to the media. He doesn’t waste any time getting a positive portrayal of his client.”
Six-foot-6 and seven times married, with a penchant for long, white scarves, Browne cuts a flamboyant figure in Seattle legal circles and has represented some notorious criminals, including serial killer Ted Bundy and the teenage “Barefoot Bandit.”
Browne, 65, has obtained remarkable results for some of his clients, but his aggressive courtroom style can also rub prosecutors and judges the wrong way. In a drug case last summer, a mistrial was declared after he questioned the judge’s competence in open court and a juror was overheard saying he wanted to punch the lawyer in the nose.
His new client, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a 38-year-old Army sniper from Washington state, was charged last week in the March 11 shooting rampage, a crime that has strained relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan and threatened to alter the course of the war.
Browne met with Bales for the first time Monday, conferring with him behind bars at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. While any trial is months away, some wonder whether the lawyer’s sometimes abrasive manner will sit well with the more formal culture of a military court, where the jury consists entirely of soldiers.
By his own count, Browne has appeared in military court only three times in a career of more than four decades. He never served in the military, and he protested against the Vietnam War. He initially received a student deferment and later was deemed unfit to serve because of his height, he said Wednesday.
“He pushes prosecutors and judges, and his success is partially due to that,” said John Wolfe, a lawyer who worked for Browne in the 1970s. “His zealousness can cause people to make mistakes.” But, he added, “I fully expect he’s going to adapt his style to the decorum required in a military trial.”
Allen Ressler, a Seattle attorney who went to American University Law School with Browne and was his law partner years ago, put it this way: “He’s not always the most pleasant human being in the world, but he knows what he needs to do to get results.”
Browne has been known to turn around in court and roll his eyes if he dislikes what he is hearing from the judge. In the drug case that ended in a mistrial, he simply refused to continue participating because he disagreed with several rulings. He sat down and did the same thing in a 1979 murder case.
“He makes harsh statements sometimes, statements some people feel might be disrespectful,” Wolfe said. “If he thinks a judge is out of line, he’ll say, ‘You’re out of line.’ He is passionate about his defense work, and when he thinks it’s appropriate, he’ll call a spade a spade.”
Though friendly with reporters, Browne can at times be prickly with them and isn’t above calling one a “pest” for telephoning too often.
Several colleagues say that he clearly enjoys the publicity from big cases but that his real motivation lies deeper, in a belief in his clients and their right to a fair trial.
“John has always had high-profile cases because he’s really good,” said Anne Bremner, a Seattle lawyer who was Browne’s fifth wife. “But often in high-profile cases, they can be a platform for important discussions on broad issues. Being part of that public discussion and potential institutional changes is important to him.”
Browne suggested the Bales case could become a platform, too. He said there are legal, social and political issues connected to the case and how it will be prosecuted.
“I’m not putting the war on trial,” he said, “but the war is on trial.” He added: “If I can help create a discussion about the war, that would be a great way for me to go out.”
Most recently, Browne represented Colton Harris-Moore, the so-called “Barefoot Bandit” who stole airplanes, boats and cars during a two-year run from the law. By portraying the thief as someone who had been neglected as a boy, Browne and his co-counsel persuaded a judge to give Harris-Moore a prison term at the low end of the sentencing range – seven years.
Browne was so persuasive the judge called the defendant “a triumph of the human spirit” simply because Harris-Moore grew up to be a thief rather than, say, a serial killer.
Browne says he has won not-guilty verdicts in 17 murder cases over his career.
One of his biggest cases involved Washington state’s worst mass murder, the slaying of 13 people at a Seattle gambling club in 1983. At the end of the trial, Browne had the mother of his client, Benjamin Ng, bow to the jurors and ask them to spare her son from execution, recalled Bremner. Ng was sentenced to life in prison.
In the 1970s, Browne came to represent Bundy when he was under investigation for killings in Washington. Bundy ultimately confessed to dozens of murders around the country and was executed in Florida by electric chair in 1989.
A Tennessee native, Browne graduated from the University of Denver, then got his law degree in 1971. He worked as an assistant attorney general in Olympia and then as chief trial attorney in the public defender’s office in Seattle before entering private practice.
He has benefited from the assistance of a series of sharp associate lawyers, most recently Emma Scanlan, who has handled many of the nuts and bolts of their cases while leaving the public pronouncements to him.
So far, Browne is doing a good job countering the portrait of Bales that has emerged in leaks from anonymous U.S. officials, said Dan Conway, a former Marine and a military lawyer. But talking so much about his client – for example, saying that Bales remembers little about the attack – is risky, Conway said.
Military investigators have sole access to witnesses in Afghanistan and can start collecting evidence to contradict Browne’s suggestion that the shootings may have been what psychiatrists call a dissociative event.
“You want to humanize your client, but you don’t want to give away the whole playbook,” Conway said.