RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's lawyer is a woman named Judy Clarke, and she has made a name for herself defending a long list of notorious clients: the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski; 9/11 conspirator Zacharias Moussaoui; Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympics bomber; and Jared Loughner, the man who opened fire on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords' political rally in Tucson, Arizona. In each case, Clarke has succeeded in helping her clients avoid the death penalty. NPR's Jennifer Ludden spoke with people who know Clarke well and she brings us this profile.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Judy Clarke routinely faces an enraged public. Top notch prosecutors, difficult, often disturbed clients. Remember Susan Smith who lied about drowning her toddlers in a lake?

SUSAN SMITH: I want to say to my babies that your momma loves you so much.

LUDDEN: So, you may assume Clarke is tough, aggressive, happy in the spotlight.

CHRISTINA BECKER: The thing that was most surprising was that she was quieter, much less talkative than I thought she would be.

LUDDEN: Christina Becker is a former law student of Clarke's at Washington and Lee University. She says Clarke seems utterly without ego yet still commanding.

BECKER: 'Cause she's someone that has a presence without having to verbalize it. She can be even disarming in her silence.

LUDDEN: When she does speak up, Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School says Clarke's legal arguments are plainspoken, no-nonsense.

LAURIE LEVENSON: It's almost like you were sitting down at a dinner table and saying, hey, Judy, what do you think of the legal system, what do you think of this case.

LUDDEN: Levenson says this low-key manner helps Clarke with the delicate task of getting her clients to open up and accept her help.

LEVENSON: Don't forget that it's not been smooth sailing with all of her clients and it'd be hard to expect that it would be. I mean, someone like Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, doesn't really want to be around lawyers.

LUDDEN: In fact, Kaczynski repeatedly tried to fire Clarke and represent himself. Yet, in 1998, Clarke sounded sympathetic. She explained that her client simply couldn't bear basing his defense on admitting he was mentally ill.

JUDY CLARKE: He has lived with this fear all his life. This is not manipulation. This is not cunning. This is not an attempt of someone to escape legal process. This is a very heartfelt reaction on his part.

LUDDEN: Judy Clarke rarely gives interviews, and did not return phone calls from NPR. She grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of conservative Republicans who say they fostered independent thinking in their children. It worked. After a brother died of AIDS, Clarke reportedly persuaded her mother to come out against a longtime family friend, Senator Jesse Helms. The politician was openly anti-gay, and had suggested Clarke's brother brought his death upon himself. Clarke is also an ardent opponent of the death penalty. She's said a civilized society shouldn't legalize homicide. And this, say colleagues, is what motivates her work.

JONATHAN SHAPIRO: The guiding light is, and as Judy would always say, the goal here is to save this guy's life.

LUDDEN: Jonathan Shapiro teaches a class with Clarke at Washington and Lee where he says she's known for her great laugh and sense of humor. He's turned to her for advice on how to build a client's trust. He says Clarke has endless patience and will spend whatever time it takes.

SHAPIRO: If it's a matter of, you know, contacting a relative, you need to be able the next time you see them to say, yes, I did. If it's making a complaint to the jail about conditions, they're not getting their medicine on time, or whatever, you've got to do it.

LUDDEN: Sometimes, Shapiro says, it can take a month or two before lawyer and client even start discussing the alleged crime. Another challenge: researching deep into a client's past to find telling details that will humanize them. Former student Christina Becker says this is the thing she'll most remember from Judy Clarke.

BECKER: Something that she always says is that people shouldn't be, or don't want to be, judged by the worst thing they've done in their life. You know, how they might have done one terrible thing, but that doesn't mean that they're not a good father or they're not someone's favorite aunt. You know, or they didn't volunteer with the YMCA or something.

LUDDEN: Finding that telling detail will be all the more difficult for alleged Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, since family members live half way across the globe. And a recent poll finds 70 people of Americans support the death penalty for the 19-year-old if he's convicted. But as Judy Clarke has told jurors before, she's not trying to gain sympathy, just understanding. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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