In ‘The Devil’s Defender,’ Barefoot Bandit attorney looks back on his career

Seattle criminal lawyer John Henry Browne takes an admiring look at his life and work — with a disappointing lack of introspection or depth.

‘The Devil’s Defender: My Odyssey Through American Criminal Justice from Ted Bundy to the Kandahar Massacre’

By John Henry Browne

Chicago Review Press, 248 pp., $26.99

In his just-published autobiography “The Devil’s Defender,” John Henry Browne, one of Seattle’s most flamboyant criminal defense lawyers, takes a look back at his life and career. He finds much to admire.
While certainly an easy read, with a fluid and conversational tone, the book is an opportunity missed, and badly. Browne has worked on some very interesting cases that raise difficult questions, and there’s certainly a book in there somewhere. But this brief survey of his professional life betrays a disappointing lack of introspection or depth.

As a young lawyer in the King County Public Defender’s office, Browne was assigned to represent serial killer Ted Bundy, who confessed to 30 homicides of young women over several years. Bundy was ultimately convicted of murder and executed in Florida in 1989. Browne developed a close relationship with Bundy that spanned years of calls and correspondence.

Browne also represented Benjamin Ng, one of three perpetrators of the Seattle Wah Mee Massacre in which 14 individuals were shot at close range. Defending him at trial was no small task, but Browne was able to save him from the death penalty. Another of the killers, Willie Mak, by contrast, was sentenced to death (later reduced to life without parole).

Browne’s more recent cases include defending Sgt. Robert Bales, who killed 16 villagers in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Colton Harris-Moore, the so-called “Barefoot Bandit” who taught himself to fly an airplane and then stole several of them during the course of a small-bore crime spree. Browne negotiated a complicated plea bargain for Harris-Moore.

These cases could have provided a springboard to discussing the role of criminal defense counsel in our system of justice, or how one might reconcile one’s professional obligations with horrific blood-splattered crime scenes and obviously guilty clients. Browne comments in passing that he rises to defend those charged with such crimes not because they are virtuous but “because I believe that killing is wrong, whether it’s committed by an individual or sponsored by the state.” But that’s about as deep as his analysis gets.
Indeed, Browne’s conversations and correspondence with Bundy (some of it reprinted in an appendix) or his work representing Ng or Bales could have filled an entire volume. Instead, Browne barely scratches the surface of his work, focusing instead on apparent efforts to burnish his own reputation.

He comments that when he was asked to represent Bales, “[a]s usual, I knew it would probably break me financially. Sure it would mean international attention for my law firm and myself, but I was at the stage of my career where building my résumé or getting national media attention meant little.” Passing comments like this abound. He quotes a speech in which he contended that the ethics rules that apply to all licensed lawyers are “advisory” rather than “mandatory,” a rather distinctly minority view. He even includes “John Henry Browne’s Ten Rules for Trials” in another appendix. It’s all a bit much.

The editors of this short (fewer than 250 pages) work would have done well to tone down the bluster and to send Browne a Starbucks gift card with instructions to finish the book.

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