LOS ANGELES (AP) — Judy Clarke is in the business of cheating death, but she rarely talks about it.
Clarke, one of the nation's top lawyers and defender of the despised, broke her silence Friday in a speech at a legal conference, where she spoke about her work saving notorious criminal defendants from execution.
The names of her past clients — Susan Smith, Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and most recently, Tucson shooter Jared Loughner — run like a list of the most reviled in American criminal history. But she did not say whether she would add to that list the latest name in the news: The suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Clarke was reticent throughout her keynote speech and declined to take questions from the audience. Instead, she talked about how she had been "sucked into the black hole, the vortex" of death penalty cases 18 years ago when she represented Smith, who drowned her two children.
"I got a dose of understanding human behavior and I learned what the death penalty does to us," she said. "I don't think it's a secret that I oppose the death penalty. "
She saved Smith's life and later would do the same for Kaczynski, Loughner and the Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph. All received life sentences instead of death.
Before an audience of lawyers, judges and law students at Loyola Law School's annual Fidler Institute, Clarke shared her approach in handling death penalty cases.
"The first clear way death cases are different is the clients," said Clarke, now a visiting professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia. "Most have suffered from serious severe trauma, unbelievable trauma. We know that from brain research. Many suffer from severe cognitive development issues that affect the core of their being."
She added that they had another thing in common: When she first meets them, they do not want to plead guilty. Her job is to change their resolve, she said.
"They're looking into the lens of life in prison in a box," she said. "Our job is to provide them with a reason to live."
Connecting with the client by finding out "what brought them to this day that will define the rest of their lives" is the first step, she said. In most cases, she said she finds underlying mental illness. Kaczynski was ultimately diagnosed as schizophrenic and, on the eve of seating a jury, he agreed to plead guilty.
Clarke said a veteran lawyer once told her: "The first step to losing a capital case is picking a jury.
The San Diego-based attorney often appears in court as a federal public defender, and appealed to judges in the audience to provide sufficient funding for death penalty cases. She also told defense lawyers and students that death penalty clients deserve their loyalty.
"Our clients are different," she said. "We should enjoy the opportunity to step into their lives. It can be chaotic. But it's a privilege to be there as a lawyer."