Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: Driven to defend the guiltiest of clients

Review of: The Devil’s Defender – My Odyssey Through American Criminal Justice from Ted Bundy to the Kandahar Massacre
Author: John Henry Browne
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: A

He’s defended some of America’s most notorious mass murderers, from Ted Bundy to a perpetrator of one of the West Coast’s biggest mass murders, to the U.S. soldier convicted of killing dozens of unarmed villagers in a night-long shooting spree in Kandahar, Afghanistan. And he’s done this since his own girlfriend was brutally murdered.

How does criminal lawyer John Henry Browne justify his defense of such killers? Browne tells all, including his own struggles with drugs and alcohol, and what he really thinks of some of his clients in his memoir, The Devil’s Defender: My Odyssey Through American Criminal Justice from Ted Bundy to the Kandahar Massacre.

He grew up the son of an engineer whose work provided the enriched uranium for the earliest atomic bombs, helped pay his way through college by shepherding the likes of Morrison and Jimi Hendrix through West Coast drug scenes, and became radicalized during the protests of the Vietnam war era. He was determined to fight his induction into the Army, but was actually rejected because of his 6-foot 7-inch height. (The draft at the time excluded anyone over 6-feet 6-inches.)

After law school, he posed as a child molester to enter a Washington State prison as one of its few white inmates, intending to help the state rewrite its rules of incarceration. He writes that he chose an alibi as a child rapist because he wanted “to experience the most extreme treatment. Prisoners hate pedophiles.”

(He managed to avoid the worst of the other inmates’ abuse, for which he credits the help of a fellow prisoner, a member of a revolutionary civil rights group. However, readers may wonder if Browne’s extreme size also helped deter other inmates.)

When Browne and two other employees of Washington State’s attorney general’s office drafted new due process rules to protect prisoners, prison administrators and correctional officers resisted. Browne contacted an old friend from law school and asked him to use the state. Washington lost the suit, effectively giving the new due process rules a court-ordered backing. Still, Browne burned out quickly from his task of prison reform. Within two years, he left his state job to join a public defender’s office.

His most infamous client, Ted Bundy, would soon enter his life.

Although Browne had spoken to Bundy earlier in connection with the lesser charge of kidnapping, he was surprised by the change in Bundy’s behavior when they met in Salt Lake City in January 1977, where Bundy was now also charged with one count of murder. The media frenzy Browne anticipated from the meeting was overshadowed by still another murderer – Gary Gilmore – and his controversial request to be executed by firing squad.

Given Bundy’s taste for publicity, he may have been annoyed to be ousted, at least temporarily, from the headlines. Possibly that caused the change Browne noticed.

“Ted stopped being coy about the charges against him. He informed me that he was involved in . . . murders in Washington State and was responsible for countless other homicides in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah. This was no shock, as I had for some time considered him to be exactly who the police thought he was. But to hear the man say it was another thing. . . ”

Ultimately, Browne was unable to save Bundy from himself. Possibly, Browne surmises, Bundy couldn’t resist the final publicity stunt of execution, which Browne declined Bundy’s request to witness.

“. . . two years after (Bundy’s execution) I sat in a darkened theater on Bainbridge Island, Washington. The movie was The Silence of the Lambs. . . I never made it to the end of the film. . . I felt sick to my stomach – just as I had my last time in Ted Bundy’s cell.

“People often ask me, ‘If you’re so disgusted with these acts of evil, why are you a criminal defense lawyer?’”

His answer: “because I believe killing is wrong, whether it’s committed by an individual or sponsored by the state. I’m also all too aware of how fallible our system is, that it can and does charge and convict the wrong people.”

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