Shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue

The Boston bomber’s lawyer is now repping the Pittsburgh massacre suspect

Judy Clarke also represented the Unabomber. She has now taken Robert Bowers’ case.

A man visits a memorial outside of the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, pausing in front of the tribute to Sylvan and Bernie Stein.

A man visits a memorial outside of the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, pausing in front of the tribute to Sylvan and Bernie Stein.

Cara Owsley/USA Today Network
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The man accused of killing 11 people inside a Squirrel Hill synagogue is now being represented by Judy Clarke, a high-profile defense attorney and federal death penalty expert.

Clarke has represented some of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history and demonstrated an uncanny ability to see their lives spared by the criminal justice system. By representing Robert Bowers, Clarke is taking on yet another high-profile client accused of unspeakable violence and facing the prospect of the death penalty in return.

A motion to appoint Clarke as Bowers’ defense attorney was granted by presiding district Judge Donetta Ambrose on Dec. 27.

Attempts to reach Clarke at her San Diego law firm Tuesday were not successful. Margaret Philbin, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania, was unable to comment, as she’s been furloughed due to the ongoing government shutdown.

Bowers, 46, of Baldwin Borough, is charged with hate crimes related to the shooting deaths of 11 congregants and the wounding of six others, including four law enforcement officers, at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill on Oct. 27.

Federal prosecutors have said they plan to seek the death penalty, though the final decision rests with the U.S. Attorney General’s office, which has yet to make a formal announcement. Pennsylvania has a moratorium on the death penalty in place but it won’t apply because this is a federal prosecution. (Bowers is facing a separate state criminal case in connection with the killings.)

Clarke, a graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law, is an expert on the death penalty.

Her past clients include the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski; the so-called 20th 9/11 hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui; Jared Loughner, who killed six people and wounded 13 others, including former U.S. Congress member Gabrielle Giffords, in a 2011 Tucson mass shooting; Susan Smith, who drowned her two sons in a South Carolina lake in 1994; Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph; avowed white supremacist Buford O. Furrow Jr., who walked into the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center in 1999 and opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon, wounding five before shooting and killing a mailman; and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

All but Tsarnaev avoided the death penalty under Clarke’s legal representation.

Clarke began her career as a federal public defender in San Diego and Spokane, Wash. She is ardently opposed to the death penalty and once called the practice “legalized homicide.”

In a 2015 New Yorker profile, Patrick Radden Keefe wrote that Clarke “may be the best death-penalty lawyer in America,” adding, “On rare occasions when Clarke withdrew or was removed from a defense team, a defendant received the death penalty. But in cases that she tried through the sentencing phase, she had never lost a client to death row.”

The New Yorker piece notes that most of Clarke’s success in death-penalty cases has come from negotiating plea deals.

Bowers previously requested court-appointed attorneys, telling the court he could not afford his own. He is currently being represented by the Federal Public Defender’s Office.

In his request for additional counsel, which led to Clarke being appointed to his legal team, Bowers asked for a lawyer “learned in the law of the death penalty” to round out his defense. Ambrose’s order granting his request notes that Bowers’ attorney with the Federal Public Defender’s Office suggested Clarke be made the appointee.

“Ms. Clarke has extensive experience representing death penalty defendants, is the past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys and is a member of the national capital resource counsel project that assists the courts as appointed counsel in federal capital cases,” the judge’s ruling reads.

Clarke works mostly for free, or pro bono, in cases like this one, although the nature of her arrangement in the Bowers case is not made clear by court filings.

Bowers is facing 44 federal counts, 32 of which carry the potential for the death penalty.

Explore other Shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue stories.

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Robert Bowers