By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When death penalty expert Judy Clarke joined the defense team for the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, she spent months trying to establish a rapport so she could convince him to accept a plea deal that would spare him capital punishment.
Though she and his other lawyers angered Kaczynski when they sought to introduce evidence of his mental illness, he eventually pleaded guilty in 1998 and received a life sentence.
"I think she has a real gift," David Kaczynski, his brother said on Tuesday, a day after Clarke was assigned to the defense team for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. "Even if it's the smallest sliver of common ground, Judy's going to be able to find that. There's no doubt in my mind that Judy saw my brother's humanity despite the terrible things he'd done."
Tsarnaev, 19, is accused of setting off explosives April 15 near the finish line with his older brother, Tamerlan, killing 3 and injuring 264. He was arrested April 19 after a massive manhunt that left his brother dead following a police shootout.
Tsarnaev faces charges of using a weapon of mass destruction and malicious destruction of property with an explosive device, both of which can carry the death penalty when they cause the death of others. He has not yet entered a plea. U.S. authorities have not said whether they will seek capital punishment.
In court papers asking a judge to appoint Clarke as a public defender, one of Tsarnaev's lawyers, Miriam Conrad, cited a federal law giving defendants in potential capital cases a right to an attorney with experience handling death penalty cases.
Over nearly two decades of representing infamous defendants in capital cases, Clarke, who opposes the death penalty, has built a national reputation for avoiding executions for her clients.
In addition to Kaczynski, Clarke defended Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber, and Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her young sons in 1994. They both were spared the death penalty.
Most recently, Clarke represented Jared Loughner, the 24-year-old charged with killing six and wounding former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in a January 2011 mass shooting. Loughner, who faced death, pleaded guilty in August 2012 in a deal that sent him to prison for life.
Colleagues said Clarke is known for her meticulous research into the lives of her clients to find possible mitigating factors, and that she possesses a sharp sense of humor and a folksy style that belies her intense, no-nonsense preparation.
"She humanizes the client. But more importantly, she humanizes the jury, the lawyers, the judges," said Gerald Goldstein, a defense lawyer who has known Clarke for 30 years. "Judy's brilliant at making people reconsider their values ... to reconsider our place in making life or death decisions."
With an unassuming manner, Clarke can come across as "gentle Judy," said a longtime acquaintance, criminal defense lawyer Donald Rehkopf.
"She's not flamboyant or in your face - just the opposite," he said.
Clarke rarely grants media interviews and did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Last week, at a forum at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, Clarke delivered the keynote address, explaining that her job was to convince reluctant clients that opting for prison was better than choosing a death sentence.
"They're looking into the lens of life in prison in a box," she said, according to an Associated Press account. "Our job is to provide them with a reason to live."
Her efforts are not always welcomed by her clients, many of whom suffered from mental illness. Kaczynski tried to have his legal team fired and later unsuccessfully asked an appeals court to throw out his guilty plea, while Loughner spat and lunged at Clarke during a meeting in prison early on in his case, according to court filings.
There is no evidence that Tsarnaev, a naturalized U.S. citizen and a student at the University of Massachusetts, suffered from psychological problems.
Legal experts have said that defense lawyers could point to Tsarnaev's youth and the possible influence of his older brother as reasons for the government not to seek capital punishment.
Clarke previously ran the San Diego office of the Federal Defenders and served as president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She is in private practice in San Diego with her husband while continuing to take on public defense work in capital cases.
For Barry Scheck, the co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate convicted defendants, Clarke has become the "go-to" public defender for capital cases.
"She has a profoundly developed sense of humanity, aside from being a great lawyer," said Scheck, who has known Clarke for more than 20 years. "That's a powerful combination."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Terry Baynes; editing by Noeleen Walder, Mary Milliken and Philip Barbara)