With a trusting face, sensible shoes and hair pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail, Lisa Ludwig looks more like the book editor she planned to be as an undergraduate than a high-stakes trial attorney. The approachable, self-deprecating 36-year-old has a cat, bad-hair days and caring parents who try to attend whenever she appears in court. She is not the sort of person you’d imagine—or even want to imagine—in a tête-à-tête with a serial killer.
But she’s been there, and she’s ready to return. After 10 years representing defendants accused of some pretty heinous crimes, including Oregon’s most prolific serial killer, Ludwig says she’s “totally hooked.”
This spring, she was second chair for the defense in Dayton Leroy Rogers’ headline-grabbing resentencing trial. The Canby engine mechanic was convicted 18 years ago of murdering six women whose bodies were dumped in the Molalla Forest. Two previous death sentences had been overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court. The evidence in the eight-week trial was the stuff of nightmares: The victims had been bound, stabbed and tortured; some were mutilated.
The defense argued that Rogers’ difficult childhood should be taken into account: His father beat him and killed the family pets. They argued that Rogers had been a model inmate. Ludwig was moved to tears when she pleaded with the jury to spare his life.
“You separate the bad facts and the horrible pictures from your job as an advocate. It’s a weirdly natural role,” says Ludwig. “I don’t have any kids, but I imagine it’s kind of like being a parent. When someone comes to you and says, ‘I need your help; you understand this process and I don’t,’ you have kind of an instinctive response to help them.”
Ludwig, like many of her peers, is driven by a sense of duty and a wellspring of compassion that keeps her on track in the moral wilderness of defending people who commit horrible crimes. But regular folk—even those on a steady diet of Law & Order—can’t always wrap their heads around the reality of the work.
Thin-skinned need not apply
“It’s kind of a showstopper to be at a dinner with a bunch of people and somebody asks what do you do for a living, and you say, ‘I’m a criminal defense attorney.’ Silence,” says Portland lawyer Stephen A. Houze. As one of Oregon’s top criminal defense attorneys, Houze has weathered more than his share of pregnant pauses. “Or many people will say, ‘How the hell can you represent those kinds of people?’ It’s a common reaction that people have, at least after a drink.”
Houze’s representation of defendants has raised many hackles over cocktails, including a case in which a 30-year-old shipping clerk was convicted of bludgeoning to death with a hammer a couple and two young boys in the 1970s; another in which Deniz Aydiner, a Turkish national, is serving life for sexually assaulting and murdering a University of Portland student in 2001; and still another in which Jayant Patel, a Portland doctor (known as “Doctor Death” in the Aussie tabloids), is currently under investigation for more than a dozen deaths stemming from botched surgeries Down Under.
“The truth of the matter is that many people do identify you with your client, or they do not appreciate the importance of the role of having an advocate for people accused of crimes in our society,” says Houze, 60.
When Salem criminal defense attorney Steven L. Krasik left a career as a Navy pilot to attend law school, he never imagined practicing any other kind of law.
“When the question is asked, ‘How can you defend that person, or could you defend someone you knew was guilty?’ the answer is, ‘Absolutely,’ because the defense to me is as patriotic as being a military pilot,” says Krasik, 61, who flew combat missions in Vietnam. “I’m the quality-assurance branch of the government [when appointed by the court]. When I think about how remarkable it is that the government hires good people to nibble and gnaw at their knees to make sure that what comes down the conveyor belt passes constitutional muster, it kind of fills me with pride to do it.”
These lawyers are idealists, but with wide independent streaks, skepticism of power and the ability to excel when everything—including the lives of their clients—is on the line. They relish the emergency-room nature of the engagement.
“To badly quote Robert De Niro from the film Brazil: ‘A man alone, you’re in, you’re out,’ ” Krasik says. [Pretty close.] But his point is clear: You give it your everything and then move on. Krasik claims that writing wills and worrying how they’ll hold up in 30 years would keep him up more nights than agonizing over a death-penalty case.
Ludwig likes trying to mend a bad situation. “I kind of compare it to the reasons I would never be a domestic relations lawyer,” she says. “When my clients come to me, for the most part, the bad behavior is over and now we are in a position of trying to mitigate the damage, explain what happened, look at it from an endpoint back. Whereas with a divorce lawyer, the client comes to them and wants them to get actively involved in the ongoing bad behavior. My clients don’t try to actively involve me in their wrongdoing.”
One typical lawyering perk that’s not generally on the table in a murder case: big money. It’s rare that these defendants—with the exception of the O.J. Simpsons of the world—are able to bankroll their own defense. When they do, the price tag is high. But in most murder cases, especially aggravated murder—the only charge in Oregon that carries death as a potential penalty—defense lawyers are appointed. So if you want a “heavy-duty” case, you work for the government and make about one-third or one-fourth your standard rate.
Despite his late start in the field, Krasik has already racked up more than 50 cases of murder, aggravated murder or attempted murder. Those include at least five aggravated-murder trials and several prison cases, such as the one involving John Zalme, who killed a fellow prisoner in the 1990s by beating him with a pipe, stabbing him with a chisel and setting him on fire. Krasik also represented Danielle Marie Cox, an 18-year-old member of a notorious street family. Cox is serving life with a 30-year minimum for her role in beating, stabbing and setting on fire a 22-year-old mentally handicapped woman.
Krasik also took a rare role as the second chair in the defense of one of the state’s most notorious defendants: Christian Longo. The small-time crook was tried for drowning his 4-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter in waters near their Newport condominium in 2001. Longo confessed to killing his wife and baby, but not the 3- and 4-year-old children, on the night in question. At the time, there was almost no one living along the Oregon coast who didn’t know the sordid story, including the fact that the accused had hooked up with a woman while he was on the lam in Mexico.
Although the prosecution depicted the defendant as a cold, calculating serial liar, Krasik found him intelligent and personable.
“He was receptive to discussing things with us. There was no hostility. You know, when someone is snarling at you the whole time, it’s much harder to listen with an open mind,” Krasik says.
According to Longo, he strangled his wife and dumped her body in Yaquina Bay after learning she had drowned their older children. He claimed he killed his baby only when he discovered her nearly dead body in their condo.
“It’s a toe-curling story, and it could be a complete fabrication. I have no way of knowing,” Krasik says. “All I know is, it made sense and it was consistent with the facts and the forensic evidence.” The jury didn’t buy Longo’s version, though, and he was sentenced to death for murdering his entire family. He is currently on death row.
The guilt or innocence of a client is, to some extent, beside the point for counsel. “Truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder,” Houze says.
Ludwig approaches the question of guilt or innocence with a simple rule: “Truth is the job of the judge and the jury,” she says.
Krasik, Ludwig and Houze aren’t insensitive to the pain and suffering inflicted by some of their clients, but they are much more likely to direct their ire at overzealous police, blindly ambitious prosecutors and, most especially, the death penalty.
“It is a barbaric act of any society to assemble a group of people in the name of government and decide to kill them; I don’t give a damn what they’ve done,” Houze says. “It’s not a philosophical notion. It becomes intensely personal when your client walks in the courtroom with you and they’re in shackles, and everybody looks at them and they say they want to kill that guy. And they do. I believe that I have to make that not happen.”
Like most trial attorneys, defense lawyers are a competitive crew who have to modify their notions of victory. In murder trials, walk-away acquittals are extremely rare; this is an arena where life in prison with no possibility of parole might be the endgame.
“When you’re a criminal defense lawyer, you tend to define winning as getting a better result for your client than the government was willing to offer, sometimes conviction on a lesser offense,” says Terri Wood, 51, a criminal defense attorney in Eugene. Wood, who moved from Florida to Oregon in 1988, won one of those remarkable victories in her first murder trial in the state.
She managed a not-guilty verdict for a Glenwood woman, despite the fact that the defendant had confessed three times, including once on tape, to the shooting death of her estranged husband. Wood convinced the jury that her client had claimed responsibility for the murder merely to get a stalker-convict boyfriend out of her life.
“The verdict gained me a fair amount of notoriety because no one had won a murder trial [in Lane County] in 20 years,” Wood says. A few years later, she successfully defended paroled double-murderer Russell Obremski on child sex-abuse charges. He was acquitted on all counts.
But notoriety in these big-ticket murders has a downside. Wood received threatening phone calls for representing Conan Wayne Hale, who, along with another man, was accused of kidnapping and murdering three Springfield teenagers in 1995.
“[The callers] are members of the public who presume anybody they read about who is accused of a crime is guilty. They assume that you must share in that guilt because you are trying to get the guy off,” says Wood, who, as a former investigative reporter, isn’t seriously rattled by anonymous threats. In addition to a thick skin, her journalism experience gave her the investigative skills and natural distrust of government that she says are major assets in her current line.
The Hale case dealt Wood her first, and only, death sentence. Hale was in the national spotlight in 2000, when he was one of 26 death-row inmates featured in a short-lived Benetton ad campaign.
“I’m not sure the public knows this, but [with] most of the clients I have represented, you have to basically fight with them to get them to let you prepare a penalty phase for the trial,” Wood says. “The first words out of many of their mouths are: ‘If I get convicted, I just want the death penalty.’ That’s basically what Mr. Hale said in court after the death penalty had come back. We had fought with him for the whole course of the case.”
At a pressure-cooker point in their lives, defendants facing murder charges are often difficult. But their attorneys dig their heels in—to tell their clients facts about their case they don’t want to hear and to learn as much as they can about what makes the accused tick.
“In my very first death-penalty case, my client was a man whose criminal record, and whose appearance and whose lifestyle, were such that 99 out of 100 people would say this is a horrible human being who’s facing his just desserts in court,” Houze says of a 32-year-old drug dealer alleged to have executed in 1981 a competitor who was asleep. It was one of the first aggravated-murder cases to go to trial after Oregon reinstated the death penalty in 1979.
“I spent maybe hundreds of hours in meetings with this man, talking to him and getting to know him. It was absolutely illuminating to break through the barrier and get to know about this man, who was a very private, very insecure individual who maintained a fearsome exterior as a psychological barrier to others,” Houze says. “We had an ability to communicate with one another. It didn’t mean that I could personally identify with all the things he had ever done in his life … but we found a common connection.”
Making that connection may have proven critical to Houze’s case, since he won a rare acquittal, the first in the state after the death penalty was brought back.
Wood says she’s had many clients she liked, or at least understood.
“We have an expression in the defense bar: ‘raised by wolves,’” Wood says. “Some of the people who commit crimes … it’s like, sheesh, this person was never treated like a human being by the people who are supposed to love and protect you. When somebody from a background like that takes another human being’s life, it’s not that hard to see how that could have happened.”
Wood says if you can’t find that compassion, you probably can’t defend your client well. One of the surprising insights for Houze has been how unsurprising his clients often are.
“I’ve also come to understand, in doing more than 30 years of serious criminal work, [that] the people who are the defendants in the criminal-justice system are ordinary human beings,” says Houze, who considers himself a student of human behavior. “There is a tiny percentage of people who are the hopeless sociopath, dangerous predatory people that must be separated from decent folk to keep us all safe at night. The average person by far who comes through the criminal-justice system could be your child, your father, your mother, your best friend.”