"John has always had high-profile cases because he's really good," said Anne Bremner, a Seattle lawyer who was Browne's fifth wife. "But often in high-profile cases, they can be a platform for important discussions on broad issues. Being part of that public discussion and potential institutional changes is important to him."
Browne suggested the Bales case could become a platform, too. He said there are legal, social and political issues connected to the case and how it will be prosecuted.
"I'm not putting the war on trial," he said, "but the war is on trial." He added: "If I can help create a discussion about the war, that would be a great way for me to go out."
Most recently, Browne represented Colton Harris-Moore, the Barefoot Bandit who stole airplanes, boats and cars during a two-year run from the law. By portraying the thief as someone who had been neglected as a boy, Browne and his co-counsel persuaded a judge to give Harris-Moore a prison term at the low end of the sentencing range — seven years.
Browne was so persuasive the judge called the defendant "a triumph of the human spirit" simply because Harris-Moore grew up to be a thief rather than, say, a serial killer.
Browne says he has won not-guilty verdicts in 17 murder cases over his career.
One of his biggest cases involved Washington state's worst mass murder, the slaying of 13 people at a Seattle gambling club in 1983. At the end of the trial, Browne had the mother of his client, Benjamin Ng, bow to the jurors and ask them to spare her son from execution, recalled Bremner. Ng was sentenced to life in prison.
In the 1970s, Browne came to represent Bundy when he was under investigation for killings in Washington state. Bundy ultimately confessed to dozens of murders around the country and was executed in Florida's electric chair in 1989.
A Tennessee native, Browne graduated from the University of Denver, then got his law degree in 1971. He worked as an assistant attorney general in Olympia, Wash., and then as chief trial attorney in the public defender's office in Seattle before entering private practice.
He has benefited from the assistance of a series of sharp associate lawyers, most recently Emma Scanlan, who has handled many of the nuts and bolts of their cases while leaving the public pronouncements to him.
So far, Browne is doing a good job countering the portrait of Bales that has emerged in leaks from anonymous U.S. officials, said Dan Conway, a former Marine and a military lawyer. But talking so much about his client — for example, saying that Bales remembers little about the attack — is risky, Conway said.
Military investigators have sole access to witnesses in Afghanistan and can start collecting evidence to contradict Browne's suggestion that the shootings may have been what psychiatrists call a dissociative event.
"You want to humanize your client, but you don't want to give away the whole playbook," Conway said.
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