Soldier's lawyer known for 'humanizing' clients

By Phuong Le

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 21 2012 3:30 p.m. MDT

In this Dec. 16, 2011 photo, John Henry Browne, right, the attorney for Colton Harris-Moore, left, who is also known as the "Barefoot Bandit," sits in Island County Superior Court in Coupeville, Wash. Browne is now representing Robert Bales, who is accused of killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan.

Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

SEATTLE — A day before the public learned the name of the soldier accused of methodically slaughtering 16 civilians in Afghanistan, his lawyer called a news conference and sketched a different portrait of Robert Bales: that of a loving father and devoted husband who had been traumatized by a comrade's injury and sent into combat one too many times.

The move was classic John Henry Browne. The charming, sometimes brash, media-savvy defense attorney had yet to even meet his client and was already attempting to shape public perceptions.

"His best work is not in a court of law but really in a court of public opinion. He's a master at humanizing his client, and that's an important role," said Dan Satterberg, chief prosecutor in Seattle's King County, where Browne is based. "He is accessible and quotable. And he loves to talk to the media. He doesn't waste any time getting a positive portrayal of his client."

Six-foot-6 and seven times married, with a penchant for long, white scarves, Browne cuts a flamboyant figure in Seattle legal circles and has represented some notorious criminals, including serial killer Ted Bundy and the teenage Barefoot Bandit.

Browne, 65, has obtained remarkable results for some of his clients, but his aggressive courtroom style can also rub prosecutors and judges the wrong way. In a drug case last summer, a mistrial was declared after he questioned the judge's competence in open court and a juror was overheard saying he wanted to punch the lawyer in the nose.

His new client, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a 38-year-old Army sniper from Washington state, could be charged as early as this week in the March 11 shooting rampage, a crime that has strained relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan and threatened to alter the course of the war.

Browne met with Bales for the first time Monday, conferring with him behind bars at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. While any trial is months away, some wonder whether the lawyer's sometimes abrasive manner will sit well with the more formal culture of a military court, where the jury consists entirely of soldiers.

By his own count, Browne has appeared in military court only three times in a career of more than four decades. He never served in the military, and he protested against the Vietnam War. He initially received a student deferment and later was deemed unfit to serve because of his height, he said Wednesday.

"He pushes prosecutors and judges, and his success is partially due to that," said John Wolfe, a lawyer who worked for Browne in the 1970s. "His zealousness can cause people to make mistakes." But he added: "I fully expect he's going to adapt his style to the decorum required in a military trial."

Allen Ressler, a Seattle attorney who went to American University Law School with Browne and was his law partner years ago, put it this way: "He's not always the most pleasant human being in the world, but he knows what he needs to do to get results."

Browne has been known to turn around in court and roll his eyes if he dislikes what he is hearing from the judge. In the drug case that ended in a mistrial, he simply refused to continue participating because he disagreed with several rulings. He sat down and did the same thing in a 1979 murder case.

"He makes harsh statements sometimes, statements some people feel might be disrespectful," Wolfe said. "If he thinks a judge is out of line, he'll say, 'You're out of line.' He is passionate about his defense work, and when he thinks it's appropriate, he'll call a spade a spade."

Though friendly with reporters, Browne can at times be prickly with them, and isn't above calling one a "pest" for telephoning too often.

Several colleagues say that he clearly enjoys the publicity from big cases but that his real motivation lies deeper, in a belief in his clients and their right to a fair trial.

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