Defending the damned: Seattle defense attorney John Henry Browne on his trials and tribulations in the criminal justice system – Real Change News


John Henry Browne may be the best known criminal defense attorney in the Pacific Northwest. He is often described in media reports as flamboyant and as a “pit bull” in court as he sees that his clients are treated fairly and justly as guaranteed under law.
Browne has represented some of the region’s most notorious defendants, including serial killer Ted Bundy; Sergeant Robert Bales, who killed 16 civilians in Afghanistan; Benjamin Ng, an accused perpetrator of Seattle’s 1983 Wah Mee massacre that left 13 dead; and regional folk hero Colton Harris-Moore, the “Barefoot Bandit.”
Behind the scenes, Browne has also tirelessly pursued reform of an imperfect criminal justice system that he now sees as much more flawed than when he began his defense practice four decades ago. And Browne finds hope in those he helps. He has mentored his former client Harris-Moore, who now works at his side as an intern in the busy defense practice.
Browne recounts his origins and often turbulent career in his vivid memoir, “The Devil’s Defender: My Odyssey Through American Criminal Justice from Ted Bundy to the Kandahar Massacre.” His book covers his famous cases as well as his origins, his career path, his frustrations and stresses as a defense attorney, his history of addiction, and his recovery. The book was rereleased as a paperback on April 1.
A production company is seeking to adapt Browne’s memoir into a feature film or a series for television.
Browne sat down at his Pioneer Square office and discussed his life and times.
Browne’s career representing some of the most damaged and despised people in society grew out of his deeply-rooted sympathy for underdogs.
“I was raised by a very empathetic family,” he said.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, he recalled, “my father put his job with the Atomic Energy Commission on the line to fight for a friend, who happened to be my godfather, who was gay and was caught with some other guy in a bathroom.”
Even as a child, Browne was “very proud of my father for standing up for this man.” Browne said, back then, a government worker could get fired for challenging government authority, especially in support of a gay person whom officials feared could be compromised by the Russians.
A bogus arrest in college cemented Browne’s decision to pursue a legal career. He attended college in Denver where he played in a rock band, and also became political and formed an Students for a Democratic Society chapter to protest the Vietnam War.
“I was arrested by the narcotics squad for something I didn’t do,” he said. “A bad check, it turned out.”
Browne’s band was about to sign with Elektra Records but, after his experience in jail, where most people he met were people of color, he decided to pursue law.
“That was before the Supreme Court defined speedy trial or decided there was a right to counsel for poor people,” he said.
During law school at American University in Washington, D.C., the only thing that interested Browne was prisoner rights, “back when we had prisoner rights.”
He added, “I discovered my passion for criminal law because, after working in the maximum-security prisons for three years, I thought many of the people in there were innocent or certainly didn’t have good representation.”
When attending law school, Browne’s beloved friend Deborah Beeler was murdered in the Bay Area. He described her as “a very brilliant and beautiful young woman.”
“I was at graduate school at Berkeley when I met her. She was very active in politics, as I was, and she was involved in prisoner rights so we had a connection that was quite deep. We were definitely an item when she was murdered. My dad called me and told me. I became clinically depressed — so much so that I stopped going to classes, stopped eating, stopped going outside the place where I was living.”
Browne “was depressed for a long time” and became a believer in the death penalty after Debbie’s murder. But then he had a powerful dream.
“Debbie came to me and said, ‘Don’t honor me by believing in something I never believed in.’ That turned me around,” he said. “I saw it as a reason to save whatever people I could from the death penalty [and] to become an advocate for people charged with serious offenses.”
He took the dream as Debbie telling him “to continue fighting the system.”
After law school, Browne attended a prestigious and intensive graduate program in trial practice in Chicago at Northwestern University Law School, working with prestigious criminal defense lawyers Sherman Magidson, Warren Wolfson, and Skip Andrew. They helped him work through cases, but he went to preliminary hearings on murder cases by himself and did arraignments before federal judges.
“It excited me to stand as a wall between the government and an individual,” Brown said. “I completed that two-year program in Chicago and it’s amazing what I learned. I did one case at a time and got tremendous supervision.”
To the Pacific Northwest
After that Chicago program, Browne moved to Washington state and Gov. Dan Evans hired him to work with prisoners’ rights as an assistant attorney general.
“Evans was a very progressive Republican when there was such a thing,” Browne said. “He wanted to reform the rules in Washington State for prisoners and eventually reform prisons.”
In this role, Browne wrote a new set of rules for discipline within the prison system and trained officers on how to use them. He also helped prisons organize the resident government counsel, and helped African American prisoners organize the Black Prisoners Forum Unlimited.
He became well-acquainted with the state prison system.
“I’d walk over to Walla Walla State Penitentiary with my ponytail as an assistant attorney general and I’d go down to the holding cell, segregation unit,” Browne said. “I’d ask the guards why a guy was in there, and I’d get the paperwork. If the paperwork didn’t measure up, I’d say, ‘You’ve got to let him out.’”     
After he left the attorney general’s office, Browne said, most of the progress he made was erased by conservatives with the attorney general.
After the stint as a deputy AG, Browne moved to Seattle and was hired by King County Public Defender Phil Ginsberg. He soon became chief trial attorney.
In Browne’s year with the Public Defender’s Office “we won more felony cases than we lost, which is very unusual.”
But then, “King County intentionally cut back the budget because we were doing too well. I left the Public Defenders’ Office because I felt I couldn’t do a good job if I had too many cases. The public defenders are still very dedicated people but they each have 200 felony cases or more a year each. Here in my office we’ll have 50 cases a year and there are three lawyers here.”
The Ted Bundy Case
The case of serial killer Ted Bundy runs like a red thread through Browne’s memoir. Bundy killed at least 30 women by his own admission in a gruesome, multistate murder spree that lasted from 1974 to 1978.
Browne represented Bundy at times during his grim odyssey from state to state. Browne first learned of Bundy in 1974 when serving as the chief trial attorney in the public defender’s office.
“I decided to take the Bundy case myself, not knowing that it would become sensational,” he said.
When Browne first met Bundy, he “looked like someone pretending to be a preppy.” Bundy wore corduroy pants with Bass Weejun loafers, but soon he began to adopt Browne’s wardrobe. “He asked me where I bought my clothes, what kind of car I drove, what kind of women I dated,” Browne said.
Initially, there wasn’t much evidence against Bundy, Browne explained.
However, “as my years went on with Ted, it became apparent to me that he was ‘The Ted.’”
Bundy escaped twice from Colorado. When Bundy finally went on trial in Florida, Browne and co-counsel Millard Farmer got a plea agreement to save Bundy’s life. But when they arrived at court the next day, media from all over the country swarmed the area. Prosecutors had leaked the plea, Browne said.
“When Millard, Ted and me walked to the courthouse, Ted turned to me and said, ‘I’m not going to do it.’ That was the last time I did anything to help Ted because I thought he was self-destructive. And I thought he was evil. I never thought that people could be born evil. But I think Ted was.”
Bundy bragged to Browne about killing many more people than he was ever charged with. Browne said that, “according to Florida police reports, a cop said, ‘We’ve got you on 32 or 34 [murders] now.’ And Ted said, ‘You better add a digit to that.’”
When Browne saw Bundy after he was arrested in Florida, Bundy “was lying on the floor and crying and said, ‘John, I want to be a good person. I’m just not.’” Then, Browne said, “he told me he had killed over one hundred people, including men.”
Browne believes that Bundy’s crimes were motivated by a need to control others. “I don’t think his primary motivation was sex, although he did have sex with some of his victims but not all of them. And he’d go back to the scene of some crimes and have sex with the dead bodies.”
Bundy told Browne that, when he was a kid, “he’d buy mice and he’d kill some and decide which ones would live. He was playing God. Many times, he’d stalk a woman for hours and then decide not to harm her, so he was exercising his ‘compassion.’ Control was the key.”
In two separate trials in Florida, Bundy received three death sentences for murders he committed in Florida. Despite the efforts of Browne and other attorneys, Bundy was executed by electric chair at the Florida State Prison on Jan. 24, 1989.
A diverse resume of cases
Browne has been credited with major developments in criminal law. He said, “the cases I’m most proud of are the battered women cases, some of the first in the United States. My two cases, Claudia Thacker and Ivy Kelly, established that there was a battered woman syndrome, set law nationally and in the state. The battered child syndrome defense grew from that.”
In addition, he was proud of the Colton Harris-Moore case. Defending the “Barefoot Bandit,” he consolidated 80 felony cases in six states and three countries into two. “The prosecutor asked for ten years, I asked for six and the judge turned around and gave him five. Judge Churchill talked about Colton’s ‘triumph of the human spirit.’ She was amazing. I am pleased with that outcome,” Browne said.
Browne also details in his memoir the prosecution of Sergeant Robert Bales for the killing of 16 civilians in Afghanistan. The military was determined to impose the death penalty. Browne’s work for Bales included a harrowing trip to Afghanistan and a series of complex legal proceedings. Although Bales was convicted of murder, Browne was pleased that he succeeded in sparing Bales’ life.
In his 40-plus years practicing law, Browne said, “the criminal justice system now is much worse off than what it was when I started. Two of the major issues in our country are mass incarceration and the lack of mental health treatment.” He stressed “we have more people imprisoned in the United States than any country in the world and more than in any country ever.”
When he worked in the Attorney General’s office in the early 1970s “there were probably less than three thousand people in Washington prisons, and now there are ten or eleven thousand. In the ’80s, these idiots [talked] about setting sentencing standards and binding judges to sentencing ranges. … The legislature adopted mandatory sentences, and I debated against them because I knew they would lead to mass incarceration.”
It costs $30,000 to $40,000 a year to keep a person in prison, enough to send them to Stanford, Browne said. “The war on drugs and disproportionality of incarceration for minimal abuse led to this huge incarceration problem,” he said. “We’ve lost generations of Black men to the war on drugs, and left children without fathers.”
And untreated mental illness is also a huge issue. “Back in the ’80s, people decided we didn’t need these mental institutions,” Brown said. He also sees more mental health problems with those who are arrested.
Browne suggested a few reforms. “A few years ago, courageous judges and prosecutors began drug court programs and the drug court works,” he said. “There must be a mass approach to deal with mass incarceration.”
Browne said that drug laws especially target African Americans. He described a case from 10 years ago when a young Black man came to Washington from Los Angeles with a small amount of crack cocaine — rather than powder cocaine, which carries a lighter penalty. He was given a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, which would have been less with powder cocaine.
“Black people use crack cocaine and White people use powder cocaine,” Browne said. “This is a waste of resources and it’s destroyed two generations in this country. I don’t know how we’ll recover from that.”
And he argues for better mental health services. “Western State Hospital [a state mental institution] gets criticism that is well deserved, and I’ve been there a lot. The mental health services there are substandard, but they are much better than the services available on the street.”
The next generation
In speaking to students and young lawyers, Browne stresses that law is a service profession. “The only reason to be a lawyer is to help people. I don’t care if you’re a corporate lawyer or a criminal defense lawyer,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me to see many lawyers who don’t practice law for that reason. They practice law for monetary reasons or notoriety.
“A lot of religious or spiritual people whom I respect say the only true reward in life is in helping others. And I believe that’s true.” That’s why Browne spends each Thanksgiving in jails and visits jails at least once a week and sometimes every day.
“On Mondays, there’s a calendar in the court for all of the people arrested over the weekend,” he said. “Every time I go to the Monday first-appearance hearing, I look around at the 30 or 40 or 50 people in the holding cell and 90 percent of them are non-White and there’s something wrong with that.”
“On Mondays, there’s a calendar in the court for all of the people arrested over the weekend,” he said. “Every time I go to the Monday first-appearance hearing, I look around at the 30 or 40 or 50 people in the holding cell and 90 percent of them are non-White and there’s something wrong with that.”
He’d like young people who are considering a career in criminal defense to know that “this is not a romantic job.” He tells younger people that “unless this is really your path, don’t do it. It’s just too damned hard.”
Addiction and recovery
Browne is candid about his struggles with alcohol and drugs, and his recovery. “If you find yourself abusing drugs or alcohol, you are not liking your reality,” Brown said. “For me, it was to change my reality. I was a philosophy and religion major in college, but my ego got out of control.”
He describes in his book an experience winning a death penalty case that garnered national news. He celebrated, and then “I fell into a puddle of rainwater and cat shit. That got my attention.”
To recover, he attended an intensive workshop with Dr. Richard Moss in Death Valley.
Browne has found meditation, yoga, and sometimes just paying attention to the spiritual side helpful in continuing his stressful work and recovery.
Understanding evil
In his memoir, Browne poses the question: Does defending evil make you evil? “It still remains a question for me,” he said. “I’m not sure I resolved it in my book or in my life. I can answer definitively that defending people who have done evil things does not make one evil. What worries me is being around horrible events and people, including those in the system who can be horrible.
“Being positive about this life is difficult, and that’s the honest answer.
“I was raised to believe that people aren’t born evil. I believed that until I met Ted, and I believe he was born evil. That was difficult.” He added, “The good news is that he’s the only one out of 3,000 people I’ve represented that I’d put in that category.”
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and is features editor for the History News Network ( He can be reached by email: robinlindley (at) gmail (dot) com
Wait, there’s more. Check out the full April 4 – April 10 issue.

Vol. 29, no. 46

Vol. 29, no. 47

Vol. 29, no. 47
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