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Judy Clarke to defend Susan Smith

Dan Webster The Spokesman-Review
David Bruck needed help. He’d just agreed to defend Susan Smith, the 23-year-old South Carolina woman accused of murdering her two young sons, and he knew better than to take on such a highly charged case by himself. His feelings intensified when the local prosecutor stated that he intended to seek the death penalty. And while it is likely that Bruck could have gotten help from any corner of the country, from any notable attorney or law firm anxious to take advantage of a case that would end up being a daily media circus, he ended up calling Spokane. Why? Because Bruck wanted Judy Clarke. Now, the name Judy Clarke clearly doesn’t carry the same ring of familiarity as, say, Johnnie Cochran. Yet it doesn’t mean that the man who got O.J. Simpson off is necessarily better at his job that Clarke is at hers. It means merely that Cochran has a better sense of self-promotion. Which is also to say that Clarke has little, or no, such sense at all. Then again, as head of the federal defender’s office based in Spokane, Clarke doesn’t really need one. After putting in one of her 60-hour-plus weeks working for the residents of Eastern Washington and North Idaho (including Boise), Clarke doesn’t make a habit of dining at trendy Los Angeles eateries. And she certainly doesn’t attend Hollywood premieres. She’s more apt to eat at an out-of-the-way spot (Spokane’s Thai Cafe, for example) with a small circle of friends, or spend time at home with her dogs, one of whom is named Abe (after the former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas). And that suits her just fine. As her husband, Gonzaga University law professor Speedy Rice, says, “We’re pretty private people.” Clarke will give up a bit of that privacy on Tuesday when she delivers a 7:30 p.m. speech at the GU Law School. Her topic will be the Susan Smith trial, but she also will share some of her feelings about the death penalty. Obviously, it won’t be her first public outing. While working for nearly 15 years as a federal public defender in San Diego, the last eight years as the office’s executive director, she made numerous court appearances. As a member of the executive committee of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a national group with some 8,000 members, she will take over next year as president - becoming only the second woman and first public defender to do so in the association’s 38-year history. Twice, she has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Clarke, whose office is on the seventh floor of the Peyton Building, assumed her current job in late 1992. The path to that position began 43 years ago in western North Carolina where, she says, family discussions involving her labor-consultant father, housewife-speech/drama-teacher mother and three siblings helped prepare her for a life of advocacy. “We debated a lot in the family,” she says. “We were very vocal, and we always took positions.” The Clarke family motto, she says, was “Be what you can be and be the best that you can be, whatever it is you pick to be.” And what Clarke wanted to be always related to the law. “From about the sixth or seventh grade, I wanted to become either the chief justice of the Supreme Court or Perry Mason,” Clarke says. “One summer when I was young, my mother wanted to teach my sister and I crocheting and the Constitution. She says that for my sister, the crocheting stuck, and for me, the Constitution stuck.” After graduating from Furman University, she attended the University of South Carolina Law Center, where she first met David Bruck and where she graduated in 1977. Eighteen years later, she would be seen on television, the tall woman dressed in a conservative suit, standing next to Bruck at the press conference following Smith’s sentencing to life imprisonment. And she would merely smile as Bruck, before a national audience, characterized her as “a one-woman defense Dream Team.” Speaking by phone from his Columbia, S.C., office, Bruck emphasizes how lucky he was that Clarke joined him. “I knew there was no chance at all that she would or could leave her life, her job, her husband, everything to come across the country and take up this case,” he says. “But I felt like if you don’t ask for what you want, you’re sure not going to get it.” As it turned out, Clarke came willingly - if, at first, reluctantly - by arranging to take an unpaid leave of absence. (As a contract attorney for the state of South Carolina, Clarke was paid just over $80,000 for her efforts - virtually all of which she donated to the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center.) Bruck remembered the reasons for Clarke’s hesitations: One, she thought he could find someone better; two, she’d never tried a capital case. “I said, `Look, I’ve tried a death-penalty case,”’ recalls Bruck. “`That’s not what I need. I need you.”’ And Clarke proved her worth. Smith ultimately confessed to drowning her sons by rolling her car into a Union, S.C., lake with the boys still strapped in their seats. The crime, and Smith’s initial allegations about a black man carjacking her vehicle, enraged the nation. Many people cried out that she should die, too. Yet after presenting Smith’s case in all its sad complexity, even after Smith’s conviction, Bruck and Clarke managed to convince the hometown jury that their client didn’t deserve the death penalty. “This is not a case about evil,” Clarke told the jury. “This is a case about despair and sadness.” Smith, Clarke said, “had choices and decisions. Her choices were irrational and her decisions were tragic. She made a horrible, horrible decision to be at that lake that night. She made that decision with a confused mind and a heart without hope.” But, Clarke added, “Confusion is not evil, and hopelessness is not malice.” A half year later, Clarke still speaks of Smith with compassion. And she insists the town of Union, S.C., did the right thing in sparing Smith’s life. The people there, she insists, understood the case better than the rest of the country. “You have a community of 30,000 people in the county, 10,000 in the city,” Clarke says. “Very religious, very Southern, small, textile-mill town. Very loving, giving people who know each other. They suffer from the same maladies that any community does.” That smallness, that very familiarity, she says, made the difference. “She was one of them,” Clarke says. “She was always going to be one of them, and she made a terribly, terribly bad choice. How are you going to kill her?” The town agreed. Yet Clarke found the attitude outside of Union quite different. “I got back to Spokane,” she says, “and the maintenance guy in this building said, `Welcome back. It’s really good to have you back. I think they should have killed her.’ The farther away from Union that you got, people just didn’t understand. And maybe that’s what we don’t do as much as we should in death-penalty representation is make the person into one of us.” Clarke’s compassion is clear as she speaks. And it is matched only by her reputation for battling on behalf of her clients, working tirelessly and being a rigorous student of the law. Those who have worked with, and against, her tend to stumble over themselves to sing her praises. Jim Connelly, the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington, oversees a staff that opposes Clarke and her attorneys in court. Yet even he admits that Clarke “enjoys a high reputation in the legal community. I have a high regard for her. We work very well together.” Judge Justin L. Quackenbush, the U.S. District judge (now semiretired), has worked with Clarke since her San Diego days. “She’s just an outstanding attorney,” he says from his office at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. “She’s firm and certainly represents her client’s interests, but she’s not overly aggressive. She stands her ground. Nobody pushes her around.” “I’ve met a lot of people who do this kind of work, and I can’t think of anybody who can match her,” says Mario Conte, the executive director of Federal Defenders of San Diego. Conte worked on and off with Clarke for 11 years and now holds the position that once was hers. “Her commitment and her work ethic and her talents and her drive and her spirit are just so far above anybody’s standards that at times it can be kind of intimidating,” Conte says. “She has a zeal for this work that is unparalleled.” But no one gushes more than Bruck. “ Judy just seems to have a strange immunity from all the many personality quirks that are endemic among trial lawyers, and especially among the really good ones,” he says. Clarke’s coming to Spokane, Bruck adds, is as if “Beethoven or Mozart came back to life and were directing the Spokane Symphony Orchestra. You have reason to be fortunate that an important job like that in your community is filled by a person of that stature.” Clarke laughs when hearing such compliments. “He’s a wonderful guy,” she says of Bruck. “He’s a liar, but he’s a wonderful guy.” She does not, however, laugh when she considers the importance of her job: protecting her clients against the power of the government. “When you get down to it, what is the biggest, the core value that anybody in the country has?” she asks. “Their liberty. Obviously, we want to be clothed and sheltered and fed, but once you get beyond the basics of existence, you want to be free. And I think it’s a serious thing to take somebody’s liberty away.” She’s definitely opposed to the death penalty - she calls it “crazy” and “irrational” - though she could hardly be called soft on crime. When asked what should be done with those who kill without conscience, she says, “You lock them up for life.” “Look,” she says, “there probably are people who, for whatever reason, are unable to live within the rules we have as a civilized society. Does that mean we kill them?” And as if she were transported back in front of the Smith jury, Judy Clarke presses home her point. “I just think legalized homicide is not a good idea for a civilized nation,” she says. “Even South Africa, for God’s sake, is saying no. Where are we?”
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