John Henry Browne, the lawyer for the U.S. soldier suspected in the shooting deaths of 16 Afghan civilians, has a history of defending clients in multiple- homicide cases, including serial killer Ted Bundy and mass murderer Benjamin Ng.
During his 40 years as an attorney, Browne, 65, the chief trial lawyer in the King County Office of the Public Defender in Seattle before going into private practice, has represented arsonists, a shoeless airplane thief and a man accused of killing a celebrity dog trainer.
“He seems to thrive on controversial cases, and he gets good outcomes for his clients,” said Richard Hansen, whom Browne hired in 1976 to work as a public defender in Seattle.
Browne’s newest client, a 38-year-old Army staff sergeant, is suspected of going on a rampage about three months into his first tour of duty in Afghanistan following three deployments to Iraq. The Army said in a memo to Congress that the soldier allegedly hiked to two villages close to his base near Kandahar city on March 11 to commit the killings.
The suspect is U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, according to a statement issued by Browne’s firm today. He is being held at a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, according to the Army.
‘Family Is Stunned’
“Sergeant Bales’ family is stunned in the face of this tragedy, but they stand behind the man they know as a devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed services,” the defense lawyers said in their statement.
Browne, associate Emma Scanlan and assigned military defense counsel Major Thomas Hurley plan to spend several days meeting with Bales in the coming week, the Browne law firm said.
“It is too early to determine what factors may have played into this incident and the defense team looks forward to reviewing the evidence,” including Bales’s medical and personnel records, and interviewing witnesses, they said.
The stress of a fourth deployment, a troubled marriage and alcohol use appear to have combined to provoke the killings, a U.S. official briefed on the case has said.
At a press conference at his Seattle office on March 15, Browne disputed that account.
“This is a very strong marriage,” Browne said. “There’s a lot of love, a lot of respect, two children.”
There were no incidents of domestic violence “whatsoever” and no indication alcohol had played a part in the alleged attack. Browne said.
If convicted of murder after a military trial, the suspect may face a death sentence, said Eugene Fidell, former president of the National Institute of Military Justice.
The soldier will have a preliminary hearing, where a military judge will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a court-martial, said Fidell, who teaches military justice classes at Yale University. There is no bail in military proceedings, he said.
Browne graduated from American University School of Law in 1971, according to his law firm’s website. He worked as an assistant attorney general in Washington state before joining the public defender’s office in 1975.
Last year, Browne represented airplane thief Colton Harris- Moore, known as the “Barefoot Bandit” because he committed some of his crimes while not wearing shoes. Moore pleaded guilty to the plane theft and other charges and is serving a 6 1/2-year prison sentence.
Bundy assaulted or killed three dozen women across the U.S., according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted fugitives when he was caught in February 1978. He was executed in Florida in 1989.
Browne was counsel for Benjamin Ng, who was convicted in the killing of 13 people in Seattle in 1983. Ng was spared a death sentence.
Browne also represented Michiel Oakes, who was convicted of killing Mark Stover, a dog trainer who worked for Starbucks Corp. Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz and Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Oakes got a 26 1/2-year sentence in 2010, the Seattle Times reported.
Prosecutors who worked on the Oakes and Harris-Moore cases declined to discuss their experiences with Browne or didn’t respond to calls seeking comment.
Not a Regular
Browne, although not a regular on the military circuit, is highly competent as a defense lawyer and a reasonable choice as counsel because he’s from “that part of the country,” Fidell said.
“In serious cases, people who can afford it will hire a civilian,” he said. “There aren’t that many civilian lawyers who do these cases.”
While lawyers from the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps will provide assistance, Browne will steer the case and make the strategic decisions, Fidell said.
The soldier in the Afghan attacks allegedly gathered 11 of those he killed into one home and set the bodies on fire, Lal Mohammed, an elder from Zangabad, the area where the incident occurred, said by phone. Afterward, the soldier walked back to base and surrendered, according to Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, spokesman for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai “to express his shock and sadness” and pledged “to hold fully accountable anyone responsible,” according to a White House statement. Karzai said the incident shows “great oppression and cruelty” toward the people of Afghanistan, according to a statement from his office.
Evidence gathering for the soldier’s hearing could be difficult because of the incident’s location, Fidell said. The hostility of villagers and Muslim law requiring bodies to be buried quickly and without an autopsy also pose obstacles to prosecution, according to Fidell.
Investigators will collect as much evidence as possible ahead of the preliminary hearing, Fidell said. “That’s assuming they’re getting assistance from the villagers instead of being shot at,” he said.
The last soldier executed by the military was Army private John Arthur Bennett, Fidell said. Bennett, convicted of raping and attempting to murder an 11-year-old Austrian girl, was executed by hanging in 1961. A handful of army prisoners are being held on death row at the U.S. disciplinary barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Fidell said.
“No one can be executed without the affirmative personal approval of the president,” Fidell said.
Defense lawyers represent unpopular clients to protect the legal process, said Hansen, the former public defender.
“The tough cases tend to warp the system in a bad way,” Hansen said in a phone interview. “The public becomes acutely aware of the most horrendous crimes so the laws tend to get ramped up because of the most atypical cases.”
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