Mind Matters — Steel Magnolia?

My ears perked up the other day when I heard Mark Bowden being interviewed on NPR relating to his recent article in Vanity Fair about Judy Clarke, the attorney who is defending Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Because Southern born and bred Judy Clarke eschews publicity and notoriety, she may not have “celebrity status.” However, Bowden considers, “Among those who want capital punishment abolished in this country, Judy Clarke is the most effective champion in history.”

Before being Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense attorney, she has defended numerous others whom the media and the public have already condemned.

She was the defense for Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; for Susan Smith, who drowned her children; for Eric Rudolph, the racist terrorist and Christian extremist who detonated a bomb at the summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. Rudolph, we should remember, killed two people and injured 150. Also Clarke defended Zacarias Moussoui, who was accused of being a part of the September 11 attacks; and she defended Jared Lee Loughner, who in 2001, opened fire at an outdoor event in Arizona where he severely wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords and murdered six others. While Attorney Clarke may shun the limelight, her clients achieve the fame of infamy through their heinous crimes.

Clarke’s defense rest not on proving the innocence of her clients as much as it is to wrest them from the death penalty which she considers “legalized homicide.” She has told her students that the attorney stands between the power of the state and the individual. She has also commented that “no one should be defined ‘by the worst moment, or worst day’ of his life.” (Bowden) Her goal at trial is to reframe the narrative about the accused, showing what factors and circumstances may have been foundational to the crime. According to Bowden, “She seeks not forgiveness but understanding.”

Perhaps it is her compassion in seeing the broken humanity of the individual that allows her to be so persuasive in court. Bowden remarks that Clarke has a steeliness that doesn’t usually get associated with kindness, and that it is her steeliness that makes her defiant and committed. However, compassion and steely tenaciousness are not antithetical to each other. In fact, for authentic action, they work hand in hand. That old cliché, “don’t mistake kindness for weakness,” comes to mind.

While reading about Judy Clarke’s relentless work against the death penalty, I remembered a horrific story of a man and woman falsely convicted of murder. Sunny Jacobs and her husband Jesse Tafero were both given the death sentences. Tafero burned to death in a botched execution. Jacobs was released after almost twenty years in prison. There are other shocking stories told in the movie, The Exonerated. Or, consider the Innocence Project, “a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.”

Judy Clarke’s defense of the guilty may one day bring light to the other dark side of the death penalty: the wrongful execution of the innocent.