Lawyers who defend terror suspects have thankless task. Why do they do it?
The defense team for Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev includes several lawyers experienced in terrorism cases. It takes a certain kind of lawyer, it seems, to represent accused terrorists.
Courtesy of the Federal Public Defender's Office / AP
Defending an accused terrorist in court isn't for everyone, but the lawyers signing on to protect the legal interests of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the remaining living suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, are experienced defenders who know what they are getting themselves into.
Leading the team is the tenacious and detail-oriented Miriam Conrad of the Federal Public Defenders Office, which represents people charged with federal crimes who can’t afford a lawyer. She has so far added three experienced defense lawyers – two of them public defenders – to her team, including, on Monday, Judy Clarke to help in the death penalty aspect of the case.
Ms. Clarke is best known for her 1994 defense of Susan Smith, who was sentenced to life in prison, not death, for murdering her two children in Atlanta. She has also defended "Unibomber" Ted Kaczynski and, more recently, Jared Loughner, who has pleaded guilty to 19 charges of murder or attempted murder in the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz.
Ms. Conrad, too, has some experience with terrorism suspects. She helped defend Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, who is serving a life sentence for the 2001 attempt to blow up a plane using explosives in his sneakers. And last fall she defended Rezwan Ferdaus, who received a 17-year sentence for plotting to blow up the Pentagon using remote-controlled model planes.
Most people might consider defending a terrorism suspect a thankless task, but those who have done it often thrive on the endeavor.
“There is a certain personality that is drawn to this work,” says Tamar Birckhead, a former federal public defender in Boston who worked with Conrad and is now an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill. “This is more than an intellectual exercise ensuring constitutional rights are protected. I get great satisfaction out of being the voice for that person.”
The work, it seems, requires a certain kind of lawyer.
Those who defend people such as Mr. Tsarnaev try to forge a kind of bond with their clients so they will trust them with their lives. The attorney almost has to forget the accusations against the client, instead trying to identify the individual's redeeming qualities. The defense lawyer, outmanned and outspent by government prosecutors, must also enjoy being the underdog. And he or she may not see much of their own family for weeks or even months.
When he was helping to defend 1995 Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, defense lawyer Chris Tritico recalls that he saw his wife, son, and two daughters for exactly three days over a six-month period.
“It was a big sacrifice but one that my wife and I were willing to make,” says Mr. Tritico of the Houston law firm Tritico & Rainey.
“People like me have to stand up to the government and say, 'Prove your case,' ” he explains. “If the legal system does not work for Dzhokhar and McVeigh, then it won’t work for anybody.”
Defending a terrorism suspect does not mean bundles of money for the lawyers. In 1997, when Tritico was part of a 14-lawyer defense team for McVeigh, he received $125 an hour. (The current rate is close to $195 an hour.)
“It’s not about the money,” says Tritico. “I have done interviews on TV, radio, and print all over the world. While I may not have made any money or saw my wife and kids, I raised my profile worldwide and I did get a benefit out of that.”
Ms. Birckhead can attest to the low pay. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she was paid $28,600 a year when she started working as a state public defender in 1993.
In Birckhead’s case, defending a terrorism suspect was just the luck of the draw. She happened to be the person in the Federal Public Defenders Office in Boston who was on the schedule for any new matters that came up, and on that week in December 2001 something big did.
“When I heard that weekend that Richard Reid had made that attempt and the plane had landed in Boston, I knew I was likely to be assigned to the case,” says Birckhead.
She prides herself on being able to connect with her clients. “Connecting with them is not the same as endorsing,” she says. Her view is that no matter how heinous the crime her client is accused of, it is important to remember that he or she is a human being. “Dzhokhar is a 19-year-old who is someone’s son,” she says. “And, I firmly believe, and I think this is consistent with Judeo-Christian thought and other religions, too, we are each more than the very worst thing we have done.”
In doing her job, Birckhead considers it almost irrelevant as to whether a client is guilty. “Guilt could be irrelevant over what a client did or did not do,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent of the clients are guilty of something. It’s not my role to judge or get them to come clean. I’m there for the best defense on their behalf,” she says.