Judy Clarke’s perfect record suddenly has a stain.
Banking on convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s life being spared by a federal jury seemed like a safe bet. After all, his defense attorney has managed to keep some of America’s most notorious criminals off of death row. But on Friday, even Clarke couldn’t protect her client from being sentenced to what she calls “legalized homicide.”Clarke is one of America’s fiercest anti-death penalty champions. Besides Tsarnaev, she has represented the likes of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski and “Olympic Park Bomber” Eric Rudolph. And despite their high-profile crimes and the public outrage they garnered, Clarke managed to convince the authorities in their respective cases to spare her clients’ lives. Kaczynski was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and Rudolph received four consecutive life terms. Both are living out their days at a federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
In fact, thus far, none of Clarke’s clients has been executed. Not Susan Smith, who in 1994 murdered her two young sons. Not even Jared Lee Loughner, who in 2011 shot and severely injured former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
But Friday’s announcement that a federal jury sentenced Tsarnaev to death signaled that Clarke’s winning streak may be over.
Her strategy in the Tsarnaev trial mimicked one Clarke has used successfully time and again. By “insisting that judges and juries and prosecutors see the larger picture, weighing not just the crime but the whole person,” Clarke persuades the powers that be that her clients do not deserve to die at the hands of the state. As Vanity Fair contributor Mark Bowden explains, “[Clarke] seeks not forgiveness but understanding. It takes only a small spark of it to decide against sentencing someone to death.” The 12 Tsarnaev jurors needed to reach a unanimous decision to hand down the death penalty. Of the 30 counts against him, 17 carried the possibility of death.
Whether Clarke’s stained record eventually comes clean depends on the outcome of her all-but-certain appeal of Friday’s decision – a process that could take a decade or more to complete. But given Clarke’s propensity for beating the odds, it remains squarely within the realm of possibility.