RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
This is the kind of moment you learn about in school, one of the moments that defines this country. No matter how awful the crime, the suspect is entitled to a defense in court. The defense of the accused Tucson shooter is now in the hands of a prominent lawyer.
Judy Clarke is a death penalty expert who has taken on some of this country's most high-profile cases. Amita Sharma reports from member station KPBS in San Diego.
AMITA SHARMA: Those who know Judy Clarke say she's never shied away from defending some of the most reviled people in recent history. She represented Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Her other clients include Atlanta Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias�Moussaoui, and Susan Smith - the South Carolina mother who drowned her two sons in 1994.
Mr. GERALD BLANK (Attorney): She's a specialist in representing people charged with some of the most heinous crimes you can imagine. And she does it with a great deal of compassion and objectivity and thoroughness.
SHARMA: Gerald Blank is a criminal defense attorney in San Diego and a longtime friend of Clarke's. He says she takes on difficult cases out of principle and conviction.
Mr. BLANK: I believe she takes the toughest of the tough cases because she believes in them. If you really want to see the justice system work and obtain justice for someone, that's where it's really needed.
SHARMA: Clarke once ran the federal defenders office in San Diego. Now she's in private practice. But she remains active with the Federal Death Penalty Resource Council. The group helps judges find lawyers in federal death penalty cases. Blank says Clarke is a natural fit for the Loughner case.
Mr. BLANK: She is deemed to be a nationwide specialist in the application of the federal death penalty and really knows the law in that area and is very effective as an advocate.
SHARMA: Clarke's clients in the Unabomber and Olympic bomber cases both pleaded guilty, avoiding trials and the death penalty. San Diego criminal defense lawyer Knut Johnson used to work for Clarke at the federal defenders office.
Mr. KNUT JOHNSON (Attorney): She's a tremendous attorney. One of the best, if not the best.
SHARMA: Johnson says that's especially true in the Susan Smith case.
Mr. JOHNSON: Susan Smith did not receive the death penalty. You know, if you want to describe that as a win, that's a win.
SHARMA: Clarke argued that Smith was mentally ill when she murdered her sons. California Western Law School professor Mario Conte says Clarke's unpretentious style plays well with jurors.
Professor MARIO CONTE (California Western Law School): There's not a whole lot of flash and buzzers. She's very down home, extremely talented. And I think jurors really relate to her because she's real. There's no put-on in the courtroom. No airs.
SHARMA: Conte says Clarke has dedicated her life to her career and is hardworking to the point of being scary, a trait that is unlikely to change in the months ahead. Her client, Tucson shooting suspect Jared Loughner, is facing five federal counts. The charges include two counts of killing employees of the federal government and an attempted assassination of a member of Congress.
As with her previous clients, Conte says Clarke will have to avoid emotion and do what's best for Loughner.
Prof. CONTE: The ultimate objective - the ultimate objective is to save his life.
SHARMA: Conte says if anyone can do that, it's Judy Clarke.
For NPR News, I'm Amita Sharma in San Diego.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.