Colleagues know her as the “saint of lost causes,” “a walking encyclopedia,” “Gentle Judy.” CNN calls her “the best defense lawyer you’ve never heard of.” But Judy Clarke can’t stay anonymous forever: As she takes on yet another high-profile case, this time leading the defense team of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the media-shy lawyer is in the spotlight once again.
The clients she’s defended over her 30-year career are so notorious, many are known by their monikers: the Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski), the Olympic Park bomber (Eric Rudolph), the 20th hijacker (9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui). Clarke, a staunch opponent of capital punishment, has saved them all from death row. She negotiated a plea deal for Kaczynski, the serial killer who mailed explosives to dozens of random people, convincing him to plead guilty in exchange for a life prison sentence rather than risk capital punishment. Rudolph, who bombed a women’s clinic in Alabama and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, was spared the death penalty after he led prosecutors to his remaining stockpiles of dynamite in the North Carolina woods. In the present case, Clarke is arguing that Tsarnaev–19 at the time of the attack that killed three and injured over 260 –was influenced by his older brother, Tamerlan, who she says “planned and orchestrated and enlisted” Dzhokhar. (Tamerlan was killed in a police shootout just days after the bombing.)
Clarke majored in Psychology at Furman College in South Carolina, and her academic background seems to inform her approach. She tends to understand her clients’ crimes as signs of mental illness rather than outright evil. In a speech at Loyola Law School two years ago, according to the Associated Press, Clarke said that most of her clients have “suffered from serious severe trauma, unbelievable trauma … Many suffer from severe cognitive development issues that affect the core of their being.”
After graduating from Furman, Clarke went on to earn her law degree from the University of South Carolina and spent several years working as a public defender in Washington and California. She took on her first capital case in 1995, defending Susan Smith, a woman who buckled her two young children into her car and drove it into a lake. Clarke won the jury’s sympathy by bringing to light Smith’s depression and abusive childhood, and saved her client’s life–setting a pattern she’s yet to break.
Despite her accomplishments, Clarke doesn’t have much to say about herself; according to CNN, “a longtime colleague calls her lack of ego ‘almost freakish’… she has absolutely no use for the media.” The curious are left to cobble together a picture from her performances in court, her interviews with trade publications, and the (often gushing) testimony of her colleagues, clients and students. Certain themes emerge:
-She has a knack for humanizing the worst criminals
“Her specialty is seeing the humanity and vulnerability in clients accused of some of the most terrible crimes,” wroteKevin Davis in the journal of the American Bar Association (ABA). Kaczynski’s brother, David, was blown away by her ability to forge a bond with Ted. “He does not connect easily or well with people,” Kaczynski told ABA. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, she understands my brother as a human being who has significant issues and challenges and mental problems, who’s done something terrible but is still on the level of a human being.’”
“She can reach into people and find the human being inside, no matter how the rest of the world looks at them,” Jack King, a director at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told TIME. Perhaps Clarke’s stores of empathy were strengthened by the tragedies she’s suffered in her own life: Her father was killed in a plane crash in 1987, and her brother died of AIDS at 31.
“She spends thousands upon thousands of hours with each one of her clients,” a colleague told ABA. “Judy will go in and talk to them about who they are and what brought them to the place where they are.”
-She puts her clients first
Clarke favors “simple suits and flats,” doesn’t bother with makeup, and has worn her hair in a “no-fuss pageboy haircut” for at least 20 years, according to Yahoo News. “She’s really, really modest, and she’s really humble,” Clarke’s friend Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told ABA. “The thing that was most surprising was that she was quieter, much less talkative than I thought she would be,” a former law student of Clarke’s told NPR.
-She’s a longtime opponent of the death penalty
In her speech at Loyola, Clarke reminisced about how she was “sucked into the black hole, the vortex” of capital cases back in 1995, when she defended Smith. “I got a dose of understanding human behavior, and I learned what the death penalty does to us,” she said. Clarke donated a significant portion of her earnings from that case to a fund for poor defendants accused of capital crimes.