Video: Legally Speaking
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John Henry Browne
The criminal defense attorney best known for his work on behalf of the notorious.
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John Henry Browne is a criminal defense attorney with California roots who is best known for his work on behalf of the notorious. One of his first clients was Ted Bundy – the vicious serial killer executed in 1989 for the murder of dozens of women in at least six states. More recently, the Seattle lawyer represented Robert Bales, a former U.S. Army sergeant now serving a life prison sentence for the murder of 16 Afghan civilians in 2012. These were, of course, extremely difficult cases for a defense attorney to take on. But no matter how vilified his clients are, Browne can always be counted on to give prosecutors a rough time; one once compared Browne in the courtroom to “a pit bull on crack.” In November, Browne spoke with California Lawyer contributing editor Martin Lasden. Here are edited excerpts from that videotaped discussion.
Q: When a prosecutor compares you to “a pit bull on crack,” you take that as high praise, don’t you?
Well, from the particular prosecutor who said it, yes. I was representing a professional football player charged with sex offenses in two separate trials, and I won both of them. It was not that difficult, actually. But it became a high-profile thing and the prosecutor was really invested in it. So when the media picked up on her comment, yeah, I thought it was a compliment.
Yet you told the Seattle Times in 2012: “I’m not as much of an asshole as I used to be. I’ve definitely mellowed. I don’t assume all prosecutors are evil – which I did for a while.” So with the benefit of hindsight, what sorts of things did you used to do that you’re not so proud of now?
Oh you know, egging prosecutors on for no reason. Using humor against them that may or may not be appropriate. Doing whatever I could to unnerve them. I do a lot less of that now. But they’re still unnerved, which is fine with me.
You have long been a strong opponent of the death penalty. But you’ve also acknowledged that as a young lawyer you had serious second thoughts about your opposition to capital punishment after your own girlfriend was brutally murdered. What do you know about the circumstances behind Deborah Beeler’s death in 1970?
Well, the crime was never solved. She was going to graduate school at UC Berkeley, as well as working at a halfway house with people being released from prison, when one morning they found her dead. It was certainly one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. And I naturally felt that the person who did this was evil and had to be destroyed. But then I had a dream in which Debbie came to me and said that she did not want me to dishonor her by believing in things that she never believed in. It was very powerful.
Was it just a dream? Or do you attach supernatural significance to it?
I don’t know really how to answer that question. When it comes to spiritual things, I’m pretty woo-woo. But I’m not sure I’d go that far. I think it was just a really powerful dream.
You represented Ted Bundy, who’s remembered for having murdered 30 or so women. But he told you in private that he killed more than 100. Did it occur to you then that this guy might have been the same person who killed your girlfriend?
When I was actively representing Ted, there was no indication that he was involved in any murders in California.
You told a reporter that you were sure Ted Bundy was not involved in your girlfriend’s death. But then that same year  you told another reporter that you couldn’t be sure. So which is it?
Well, I’d like to be sure. Nothing is ever certain. But the police in Berkeley do not think it was Ted. They think it was somebody from the halfway house.
As the lawyer for Robert Bales – the former Army sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians, many of whom were children – you said that his was more of a political case than a legal one. What exactly did you mean by that?
One political part of it was that the Army didn’t want Bales to have a private lawyer. They wanted to keep it all in-house because they didn’t want to have to tell us dirty secrets about the war.
At the time of his arrest, Bales said he couldn’t remember what happened on the night all those civilians were murdered. But then he agreed to plead guilty to murdering them. Does that mean he now remembers what occurred?
I’m going to have to be coy in my response to that question. There are still things that Bobby – I call him Bobby – doesn’t remember. But in order to accept the resolution without the death penalty, we had to agree to certain facts. That’s all I’d like to say about that.
You write about how your own father once said to you that somebody has to do your job, but then he added, “I’m just sad it has to be you.” His sadness notwithstanding, do you think he’s proud of you?
Well, there’s been a lot of issues between my father and I, which we could probably spend hours talking about. But I actually think his comment was very profound. In order for us to have a free society, there have to be criminal defense attorneys who don’t judge their clients. But it’s a really, really hard job. And to be honest with you, there are many times when I’m sorry I have it.