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When public defender Stephen Osburn told his Kansas-native wife that he’d be representing the infamous “Bind-Torture-Kill” suspect, she told him, “The BTK guy was my boogie man growing up.” That “boogie man” case ended up turning into a professional nightmare for Osburn, who has been bombarded with phone calls and inquiries about his role in defending Dennis Rader, who earlier this summer coldly confessed to 10 murders that terrorized the city of Wichita, Kan., starting in 1974. “It’s taken a lot of the joy out of my life for the past few months,” said Osburn, chief public defender for the Sedgwick County Public Defender’s Office. Criminal defense attorneys in high-profile cases involving heinous acts often take the heat for their clients’ alleged crimes. It’s a high-pressure job that sometimes entails death threats, bomb scares, harassment of their children and alienation from friends, colleagues and society. And that’s before attorneys step into the courtroom, where acquittals are rare in awful, high-profile crimes. Just ask Mark Geragos, attorney for convicted killer Scott Peterson, who recently received the death penalty for the murder of his wife, Laci Peterson, and unborn child, after a sensational trial that riveted the nation. California v. Peterson, No. SC55500 (San Mateo Co., Calif., Sup. Ct.). During trial, Geragos had FBI and Homeland Security agents at his office investigating death threats. A pipe bomb was placed at his house. His children were harassed at school. And his colleagues thought he was out of his mind to take the case in the first place. “Uniformly, I was advised not to do it. With the exception of one or two people, most everyone told me not to. They said, ‘It’s a no-win situation. If you lose the case, you’ll be vilified. If you win the case, you’ll be vilified,’ ” said Geragos, who ignored the advice and took the case anyway. “I had my strong suspicions about [Peterson's] guilt until I met with the family, and until I talked to him and looked through the evidence,” said Geragos of the Law Offices of Geragos & Geragos in Los Angeles. ‘A reviled figure’ But what also drew Geragos to the Peterson case was the very same element that ended up causing him the most stress: the public’s preconceived notion that Peterson was guilty. “I’ve never seen so many people so adamantly convinced of someone’s guilt,” said Geragos. “He was such a hated figure, a reviled figure, perhaps the most hated man in America . . . .I think the fact that he was so universally convicted in the court of public opinion did have some attraction.” But it also meant added stress for Geragos, who felt that among the biggest difficulties of handling this case was finding an unbiased juror who would give Peterson a fair shot. “Even the illiterate were able to write ‘guilty’ [on voir dire forms]. And people who didn’t believe in the death penalty said they’d make an exception for him. “Even the Buddhists said they’d put him to death,” said Geragos, who had never before lost a first-degree murder case. Despite Peterson’s conviction and death sentence, however, and despite the pressure of trying to battle public opinion, Geragos said he’d do it all over again. “I truly believed during representation that he was innocent. And I cannot imagine a worse feeling than seeing someone get the death sentence when you believe they’re innocent,” Geragos said. “I never wanted to quit.” Attorney Scott Gleason of the Gleason Law Offices in Haverhill, Mass. is feeling pretty isolated these days. He is representing Derek Wallace, the former owner of a New Hampshire crematory who is accused in a funeral scandal that involves the alleged mishandling of human remains. On June 30, Wallace was charged with felony theft by deception and abuse of a corpse after police raided the Bayview Crematory in Seabrook, N.H., and reported finding, among other things: a dozen sets of remains without identification; two bodies in the same oven; and a decomposing body in a broken refrigeration unit. New Hampshire v. Wallace, No. 05-CR-02654, (Hampton Co., N.H., Dist. Ct.). According to Gleason, in the press, Wallace has been labeled everything from Darth Vader to Idi Amin. The public hasn’t been too nice to Gleason, either, as negative remarks are a regular occurrence. His colleagues have also given him grief for taking the case. “One guy who I’ve been practicing with for 26 years-we took the bar together-said to me, ‘Have you completely lost it?’ ” Gleason said. “ Needless to say, the entire area has been somewhat traumatized by the disclosures.” Little outside support Gleason said aside from his immediate family, including his lawyer brothers who also work at his practice, he has had no outside support in the Wallace case. “It gets lonely,” he said. But after 26 years of representing and winning acquittals for accused murderers, child molesters, rapists and other criminal types, Gleason is used to feeling isolated. “They just don’t know the facts,” Gleason said of the public and authorities in the Wallace case. “In this particular case, they got the wrong guy and the wrong charge.” Gleason expects a tough road ahead. He said there is a slant in the courtroom that leans in favor of the prosecution, particularly in high-profile crimes. And weeding out biased jurors is always a battle. But Gleason has a ritual that helps him deal with the pressures. Before he enters the courtroom, he says a prayer to an older brother who died in a sledding accident when he was 9 years old. Gleason was just 7 at the time. “I ask him just to be with me, to give me the steady hand and strength,” Gleason said. Guilt makes it easier Criminal defense attorneys note that it is especially stressful handling cases in which they believe in their clients’ innocence. The pressure, however, is a little lighter when they know the person’s guilty. Take for example the BTK slayings. “In [Rader's] case, he’s never denied doing it and wanted to plea from early on,” Osburn said. “The difficult part was making sure that we had all the bases covered to make sure that his rights were not violated,” he noted. And the BTK suspect wasn’t all that hard to deal with, either, Osburn noted. “I know what he’s done is heinous. But as a person he doesn’t come off that way,” Osburn said. “It’s hard to remember that this guy sitting in front of me has killed 10 people.” Taking heat from the public or colleagues is one thing. There are times when lawyers representing ruthless criminals can catch the wrath of angry judges who have seen enough, as Baltimore solo attorney Arcangelo Tuminelli attests. Last year Tuminelli represented Kimberly Shay Ruffner, who in May 2004 pleaded guilty in Baltimore County to raping and murdering an 9-year-old girl. Tuminelli was able to fashion a plea agreement that avoided the death penalty and secured him a life sentence. Tuminelli said he caught some grief from a judge who, as he put it, “was disinclined to be very understanding” during sentencing. According to Tuminelli, another man had wrongfully served 9 years in prison for the child’s murder. The real killer turned out to be Ruffner, who was in prison for another rape when DNA evidence showed that he was the child’s killer. Maryland v. Ruffner, No. 03 CR 3612 (Baltimore Co., Md., Cir. Ct.). According to Tuminelli, Ruffner, who was in the same prison as the innocent man and lifted weights with him, claimed that he never knew what that inmate was in for, nor did he know that anyone was ever charged with the child’s murder. But the judge didn’t buy it, Tuminelli said. “He asked me, ‘How could he for nine years sit there while an innocent man was convicted and serving time? And I gave the judge the explanation that Ruffner gave me. He said, ‘I’m not buying that,’ ” Tuminelli recalled. “This was one of the few cases where the judge was so vocal toward me as a defense attorney,” he added. “He was angry, so he was directing these questions to me. He was visibly angry at this crime and the fact that an innocent man sat in prison for 9 years.” But Tuminelli has a reason for taking on high-profile cases that cause him grief: He gets to try to save someone’s life. “If you’re a criminal defense attorney, that’s the ultimate challenge,” said Tuminelli. “My main concern was making sure [Ruffner] didn’t get a death sentence . . . .There’s no question the facts were ugly, but I worked out a plea agreement.” Extra pressure Maryland attorney Joshua Treem knows that death penalty cases also bring special pressures and can make an attorney feel like an outcast. “In the death penalty cases you feel very much alone in the courtroom for sure,” said Treem of Baltimore’s Schulman, Treem, Kaminkow, Gilden & Ravenell. He is known for the life-without-parole sentence he obtained in 2000 for his client Willis Mark Haynes, convicted of the kidnapping and fatal shooting of three District of Columbia women at a wildlife research center. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty. U.S. v. Haynes, No. PJM-98-0520 (S.D. Md.). “Other than your co-counsel and maybe other members of the defense team, there’s nobody else on whom you can rely,” he said. But he noted that “there’s life, not just liberty, at stake. And that’s a whole level of pressure that’s unique to those kinds of cases. And it’s something I don’t like to take home with me.” While criminal defense work is tough all around, the high-profile cases take on an added significance for those who handle them, noted white-collar criminal defense attorney Gregg Bernstein of Zuckerman Spaeder in Washington. “Once you’re put under the glare of the public or the press, it just creates added pressure,” said Bernstein, who has represented a state senator accused of bribery and extortion, a major corporation accused of illegal campaign contributions and a convicted murderer sentenced to life in 1996 for kidnapping a young Pennsylvania mother, strangling her and burning her body. “I’ve represented people who have been accused of heinous crimes and fraudulent activity,” Bernstein said. “But I don’t make value judgments on the seriousness of the cases,” he said. “My job is to represent my clients to the best of my ability within the parameters of the law.”

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