For The Defense -- Bundy, Ng, Pang And An Eagle Scout: Attorney John Henry Browne Has Defended Them All With His Own Peculiar Style
JOHN HENRY BROWNE ACTS as though he's going to choke on the carrot stick he's been chomping when he hears the inevitable question, the one he's heard dozens of times in various forms, about why criminal defense attorneys are held in such low regard.
He's eating a lunch of raw vegetables in his Seattle penthouse law office, a business built on defending the accused who could afford him and his investigator and whatever experts might be necessary. Browne looks out the window perched above Colman Dock and Elliott Bay as if he doesn't understand the question.
Then he thinks about the hate mail that trickles into his office - the office that stays locked, for security, during business hours. He recalls a man walking up and calling him "the most hated man in the state," and a state Supreme Court justice once saying he needed to be spanked.
Browne's mood darkens, and he speaks in the indignant tone prosecutors and judges have heard many times.
"People take their freedom for granted," he says. "They don't teach civics anymore. They don't realize how delicate the system is. It is a simple equation: The more power you give to government the less power you give to individuals."
He seems to sense the question is really about some of the infamous defendants he's represented over the past two decades. He claims an area detective tried to get him to leak information about one of his clients, Ted Bundy, the serial killer who terrorized
Washington and four other states in the late '70s.
"He was trying to get me to help him with nailing Ted! When we do that, the system doesn't work! Then our Constitution is for everyone but Ted Bundy, or now Martin Pang or whoever the next unpopular person may be."
Browne has carved a reputation as one of the most successful and zealous criminal defense attorneys in the state, as known for his style - a blend of charm and arrogance, spirituality and bravado - as for the results he generally delivers.
He has defended an Eagle Scout and a mass murderer, battered women and Bundy, police chiefs, Seahawks and Wenatchee sex-ring defendants. He stood up for a father who fought for his son and for a father who strapped his two young sons in their car seats and slowly killed them with exhaust from the family car. He represented a 68-year-old country doctor accused of two murders in the community where he spent his life delivering more than 3,000 babies.
While giving his impromptu lunchtime lecture, Browne was secretly negotiating a plea to end the contentious case involving Pang, who killed four firefighters by setting fire to his parents' International District warehouse more than three years ago.
Pang pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter and is scheduled to be sentenced tomorrow. If he receives the 35-year term prosecutors and Browne agreed to, he could get out after about 21, when he is 63 years old.
This is how most criminal cases are resolved, not by the all-or-nothing verdict of a jury, but by lawyers reviewing their hand in the cold light of the law, assessing risk and compromising.
There are many who believe Pang got away with murder, which is what prosecutors wanted to charge him with, when he escaped to Brazil. But you will get no apology from Browne, who, before finding compromise, defended by attacking.
He helped convince the Brazilian Supreme Court that treaty law required Pang be extradited only for a single count of arson. When King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, who was running for governor, tried to get a waiver to the treaty, Browne accused him of playing politics. Browne accused the press of playing jury and forcing Pang to run. He accused the Seattle Fire Department (which is being sued by survivors of the firefighters) of playing loose with safety by sending the men inside in the warehouse.
Pang won again in the state Supreme Court by a 5-4 decision, where Browne told the justices, "The words on the outside of this building say `Temple of Justice, not Temple of Political Correctness.' " Browne called the decision "a no-brainer" and criticized Chief Justice Barbara Durham, whose minority dissent, he said, had nothing to do with law and everything to do with public opinion.
Browne insulted all these people for Pang, who sealed his own fate by promptly confessing when arrested in Brazil.
AS ARE ALL top trial attorneys, Browne is a gifted storyteller who can be glib and funny or somber and dramatic. Unlike most, he has a very personal style that ranges widely, from ingratiating to insufferable. He speaks plain English, juror English, and often makes the prosecutor, or even the victim or alleged victim, the issue.
He once represented a man charged with custodial interference for taking his son and moving out of the area, although his ex-wife had been awarded custody during their divorce. Browne made the woman's behavior the defense. He did not even rise from his chair when he began his closing argument: "Ladies and gentlemen, would you leave your dog with that woman for the weekend?"
The jury acquitted.
He has the ability to swallow up a courtroom with his size (6-foot-6, 215 pounds), his precise, mannered way of speaking and his dramatic flair. He dresses up when a judge is making the decision and dresses down when it is the jury he is trying to persuade.
Browne comes off as a swashbuckler, but he compulsively prepares, a function, he says, of his insecurity. He has a recurring nightmare of doing his best work when a God-like voice booms from the back of the courtroom, "You're a fake! Nothing but a fake!"
He defends his clients not only in the courtroom, but in the tussle for public opinion when necessary. He says he must, in order to counter the inflammatory accusations prosecutors salt potential jurors with when charges are filed and made public. Some attorneys say Browne truly believes he is his client's only hope against the power of the state, but others resent the attention he gets and wonder how much of his public jousting is for the client and how much is for his business. Browne says, simply, that he has enough business.
His combative style and robust ego have led to some bruising relationships with prosecutors over the years.
Rebecca Roe stopped talking to Browne when she was the supervisor of the King County Special Assault Unit. She now is in private practice and is representing one of the families suing the Seattle Fire Department for its role in the Pang warehouse deaths.
"He personalized everything," Roe says. "He regularly made vicious personal attacks on other attorneys. He was the single most unpleasant attorney to deal with in King County."
Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for the King County Prosecutor's Office, said Browne's hard-nosed style seems based on his unshakeable belief, real or conjured, that his clients are always innocent or deserving of a break.
"He never seems to doubt the righteousness of his case," says Satterberg. "Other attorneys will allow themselves to have a casual aside with a prosecutor that he thinks his case is weak or his client is lying. But you won't get any of that from John."
Browne says Roe quit talking to him the same day she had to drop charges against one of his clients. He feels that relations with other prosecutors have slowly thawed. His cases are settling out of court more often than ever before, a sign someone is mellowing - either him or them.
PANG AND ALL the other cases are just war stories on a slow-moving Sunday as Browne bakes salmon in the kitchen of his Kitsap County home.
He is wearing loose-fitting black sweats. His thick brown hair is casually brushed to the side. He's got a barbed-wire tattoo on his right forearm and a turquoise-beaded choker around his neck. He stands tall, is still trim at 51 and still tanned from a week in Hawaii. Every couple of hours he'll smoke a cigarette, and even though he's shaved off the mustache he wore for 30 years, he still looks a little like the Marlboro Man.
His Japanese-style home, complete with Buddhist prayer stones, is meticulously kept and holds Native American art and Burmese artifacts. A gold-threaded prayer rug, collateral from a former client, hangs on a wall. This is where he meditates for self-awareness and peace of mind, reads spiritual poetry that preaches "annihilation of ego," and learns patience from his 6-year-old son, Eli.
He hates small talk, and he'd rather drive his Yamaha Royal Star motorcycle on the open road than navigate parties. He keeps a yin-and-yang symbol in his truck, a small, flat "humbling rock" in his pocket and a portrait of the Dali Lama in his office to try to remind him he is not actually the gun-for-hire lawyer he has created.
He has gone through four marriages, some fast, destructive living and much self-analysis. He often found it easier to be the prominent defense attorney, even representing an unpopular client, because at least the rules were clear.
He hit bottom in the mid-'80s, when things looked as though they couldn't get any better. He had a wife, a waterfront home, fancy cars, lots of business, headlines. But he was living off his success, his caricature. He drank and took drugs. He woke up one day and realized he was pretending.
His investigator at the time, Sylvia Mathews, was going to Death Valley to attend an intensive 10-day self-awareness seminar conducted by Dr. Richard Moss. Browne decided to go, too, and took his tennis racket. He wound up in sweat lodges, taking long speaking and eating fasts and spending hours on his hands and knees scrubbing a kitchen floor - a sight prosecutors would pay to see.
He has been searching ever since, maintaining Moss' program, attending seminars, meditating and immersing himself in other philosophical and mystical disciplines. He faithfully reads the poetry of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the Sufi spiritual masters of the 13th century.
Browne says the tough times woke him up, prompting him to radically change his thinking, to simplify, take inventory. He says he was in counseling 12 years ago when he was asked, "What do you want?"
"It was a great question," he says. "I didn't know. I'll do that with a client sometimes, just sit quiet, listen and then ask him what he wants. It changes the entire nature of the conversation."
He swore off relationships after his latest divorce a couple of years ago, but he now lives with a woman who works as a yoga instructor and physical therapist. When he asked her what she wants, she replied, "What I already have." That struck Browne as a brilliant answer, one that had never occurred to him.
He says his favorite movie is the "The Razor's Edge," the 1984 film based on Somerset Maugham's classic tale about the search for enlightenment. It is about the thin line between happiness and pain, about suspending judgment and showing compassion, and how the feeling of control can be just an illusion.
There is a scene where the main character decides to leave the Buddhist temple where he has been learning and make his way back into the world. He turns to the master and says, "I guess it's easy being a holy man on the top of a mountain."
Browne says he feels the same way. He still trips over his ego and says the spiritual wisdom he has struggled to learn evaporates so easily when he butts heads with a prosecutor or when he walks into the jail or a courtroom to be with someone, like Pang, whom everyone seems to hate.
"It's hard to do, but just giving the person your attention and not your intention can really be powerful," he says. "We all walk the razor's edge. We're all fallen angels one way or another."
BROWNE WAS BORN in Tennessee, the youngest of two children, but the family moved around as his father, who once worked as a nuclear engineer for the Atomic Energy Commission, eventually retired in Palo Alto, Calif., as a vice president for Bechtel.
Browne skated through high school without studying and imagined himself as a lawyer even then. But he enrolled at the University of Denver, where he studied philosophy, played guitar in a rock group and protested the Vietnam War in the late '60s. Then he had a fundamental moment: He got arrested.
He was jailed for writing a bad check - a charge dropped after police discovered that the check bounced because Browne had moved his account to a different bank by the time the check was cashed. His fiancee, the daughter of a wealthy East Coast family, bailed him out, but not until he had spent 17 hours with men he says had been in jail for a week and still didn't have a lawyer.
He decided right then he would be a criminal defense attorney. He broke off the engagement, quit the band (which was on the verge of a record contract) and enrolled in American University Law School in Washington, D.C.
One of his classmates was Allen Ressler, now his law partner. Browne says he met Ressler in the school law library by yelling at him to shut up. When asked what Browne was like then, Ressler says, "Brash, like he is now."
In 1972 Browne was hired as an assistant attorney general for Washington under then-Attorney General Slade Gorton. Browne was never interested in being on the government's side, but the job involved prison reform.
Posing as an inmate, Browne spent a couple of days in the maximum-security wing at the prison in Shelton and rewrote rules on punishment within the institutions. He also gave the go-ahead to Native American prisoners to conduct religious sweat lodges, a practice that continues.
He joined the King County Public Defender's Office in 1975 and soon became chief trial attorney. He represented Bundy when he became a suspect in a string of murders here in addition to his Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Florida cases. He recalls sitting with Bundy in a cell surrounded by guards when the serial killer turned to him and said with tears in his eyes, "I want to be a good person, John . . . I'm just not."
Browne hired an impressive staff at the defender's office, many of whom are now at the top of their field: defense attorneys David Allen, Richard Hansen and John Muenster; U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer; King County Superior Court Judge George Finkle; and civil attorney Bill Bailey. Several of them wondered at the time whether Browne, who had little trial experience, knew what he was doing.
In the late '70s, he set himself up in business with a phone, a typewriter and a building undergoing such major renovation that it was rent-free. He soon represented Benjamin Ng, who helped kill 13 people in the state's worst mass murder. The jury spared Ng's life.
He stood out from the beginning. He took big, public cases and won many of them. He needled prosecutors, carved up witnesses, worked the jury and was a dependable quote for reporters.
He once wore a white three-piece suit to court. After the judge ruled on a motion, he turned to Browne and said, "Now, I would like two fudge sundaes and a cream soda, please." When Browne let his hair grow long and had his thick black mustache, he occasionally would be mistaken for Yanni, the New Age musician.
DESPITE HIS reputation for the big case, Browne's favorites involve two former clients few in Seattle ever heard about, a 17-year-old Bainbridge Island Eagle Scout and a 68-year-old Quincy doctor, two truly innocent people, he says.
The Scout was charged with first-degree murder for bludgeoning a man to death in a Seattle apartment in 1991. Neighbors were awakened by the boy's shrill screams, and when police arrived he stood there splattered with the dead man's blood. He said he had been sexually molested and threatened with a broken bottle. He said he tried to escape when the man fell asleep, but couldn't open the locked door, which required a key to open. When the man began to stir, the boy bashed his skull.
He said he was lured from the Seattle Public Library by the man's promise to buy him beer that he could take back to his friends, but prosecutors charged him with murder on the strength of two witnesses at the apartment complex who claimed they had seen him there before.
Browne, with the help of investigator Chris Beck, discredited the witnesses and persuaded prosecutors to drop charges in light of the boy's strong self-defense claim. Hollywood offered the boy a lucrative contract to make a movie about what happened, but Browne discouraged it, asking whether the money was worth reliving it on the big screen.
The other case involved Dr. Jim Stansfield, charged with killing his wife and a neighbor.
The trial was memorable for its cast of characters, from a "Hamlet"-reciting medical examiner to a key prosecution witness with such a long criminal record that Browne rolled his rap sheet from one end of the courtroom to the other.
Charges were dismissed on the last day of trial, but not until Stansfield had spent $150,000 on his defense. Browne and Stansfield, now 73, remain close friends.
He has been on the other side as well, losing two extraordinarily emotional murder trials back-to-back in recent years.
The most crushing involved Darrell Cloud, the former Juanita High School star athlete who sat across from Whitman Middle School with a rifle one day in 1994 and fatally shot teacher Neal Summers as he arrived for work. Browne went to trial with an insanity defense.
While Cloud was delusional and paranoid, he also had a motive. Evidence gathered at Summers' house strongly supported Cloud's claim he had been sexually abused by the teacher for years. Browne hammered away at the abuse, hoping to at least get a hung jury and resume negotiations for a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Cloud, now 28, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Browne had built a bond with Cloud and was stunned by the verdict. Then Cloud, at the prompting of his family, filed a motion to have his conviction overturned, claiming Browne had been "ineffective" in advising him to reject a plea offer to second-degree murder and a shorter sentence before trial.
The trial judge denied the motion and exonerated Browne, but only after a prolonged, painful and public hearing. The same issue will be brought before the state Court of Appeals soon.
Then Browne went straight to trial on the Kenneth Westmark case. Shortly after being served with divorce papers, Westmark strapped his two young sons in their car seats, took his spot behind the wheel and, with the garage door closed, turned on the engine. The boys were killed, but Westmark survived, with brain damage. Another first-degree murder conviction.
The victims were 2 and 4, the same age bracket as Browne's own son at the time. The case was so tragic, even he cried in court.
AFTER PANG PLEADED guilty, Browne returned to his office where he listened to soft music, burned incense and prepared to fly to Kennewick that night to represent a prominent businessman charged with rape. He had changed into jeans and a sweater and seemed serene.
He had spent three years defending Pang. He won before three supreme courts and waded through intense disputes - in court, in negotiations, in public. His staff had collected and cross-referenced 22,000 pages of documents in preparation for trial.
When the sentencing is complete, no one will have gotten what they wanted, but everyone will have gotten something.
Pang will go to prison for a long time, but not the life sentence he feared. Prosecutors couldn't nail Pang for murder, but they held him accountable. The people who knew and loved the dead firefighters - James Brown, Gregory Shoemaker, Walter Kilgore and Randall Terlicker - will always ache, but will get some sense of justice and, perhaps, begin to heal.
Browne made his point, that laws like the unpopular treaty that protected Pang are designed to protect each of us. He will collect his fee and move on: to the Eastern Washington rape, a woman who killed her husband, a murder on Seattle's waterfront.
Richard Seven is a writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Harley Soltes is the magazine's photographer. ------------------------------- A Career of Big Cases
Browne's client list is a who's who of the state's notorious
IN HIS MORE than two decades as a criminal defense attorney in Seattle, John Henry Browne has handled many big cases. In addition to Martin Pang, some of his more notable local cases include:
Ted Bundy: Browne represented Bundy after he became a suspect in a string of Washington murders in the late '70s. The serial killer eventually confessed to murders in five states before being executed in Florida in 1989.
Duke Fergerson: A former Seahawk, Fergerson was charged but acquitted of rape in 1980.
Claudia Thacker: A Kitsap County woman who was acquitted of second-degree murder in 1981, four years and two trials after she fatally shot her husband in the back. She claimed she was defending herself and her child.
Tony Dictado: He was convicted of aggravated first-degree murder in 1982 for arranging the murders of two cannery-union reformers. He is serving a life prison sentence.
Jerry Huntley: Huntley was a Lynnwood police officer when he was charged with assault for beating an Everett police officer, who suffered brain damage. Huntley claimed self-defense and was acquitted in 1982.
Benjamin Ng: Ng was convicted in 1983 of 13 counts of aggravated murder for his role in the Wah Mee massacre, the state's worst mass murder, but the jury refused to issue the death penalty. He is serving a life term.
Tomeko Marcus: Marcus was 19 when he was sentenced in 1988 to prison for more than 23 years for killing his stepmother, Paula Marcus, who was a community leader and former investigator for the state Human Rights Commission.
Greg Nagel: Nagel was charged in 1993 with first-degree murder for fatally shooting a topless dancer in front of several witnesses. After two murder trials, Nagel pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Tyrone Rodgers: The former Husky and Seahawk football player was charged but acquitted of assault in 1994 in connection with a scuffle with a repo man.
Kenneth Westmark: He killed his two young sons in 1994 by strapping them into their car seats and starting the family car while the garage door remained closed. Westmark apparently tried to kill himself in the same tragedy and suffered brain damage.
Darrell Cloud: The former Juanita High School student was convicted of first-degree murder in 1995 for killing a Seattle middle school teacher who had sexually abused him for years.
Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.