John Henry Browne: Dynamic defender creates memorable law career
For all of John Henry Browne's confidence — and for all the high-profile cases he's handled over the decades — he is now receiving unprecedented national attention. In what could be the biggest case of Browne's career, he is defending Robert Bales, the Joint Base Lewis-McChord staff sergeant charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians.
Seattle Times staff reporters
There are lawyers who think it's wrong to keep score. They say it can warp motives, discourage taking tough cases and is, well, unseemly.
John Henry Browne is not one of them.
Browne, a criminal defense lawyer, recites statistics like someone reading from the back of a baseball card. He says he has "represented 13 police officers — and got not-guilty verdicts in every case." A few minutes later: "I've got not-guilty verdicts in 17 homicide cases, including two aggravated-murder cases." Later still he talks of doing "13 trials in 13 months." Two were homicides, he says. "We won both."
Browne, 65, has been doing defense work since the 1970s. This year he wrapped up the charges against Colton Harris-Moore, the infamous Barefoot Bandit. Accused of at least 67 crimes — from Washington to Canada to Indiana to the Bahamas, stealing planes, cars and boats and burglarizing stores and homes — Harris-Moore received 7 ½ years, after Browne detailed his client's miserable, abusive upbringing. Browne calls it the best result of any case he's ever plea bargained.
"I rarely underestimate my capabilities, but apparently I did in this case," he says.
For all his confidence — and for all the high-profile cases he's handled over the decades — Browne is now receiving, for him, unprecedented national attention. In what could be the biggest case of Browne's career, he is defending Robert Bales, the Joint Base Lewis-McChord staff sergeant charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians.
The March 11 massacre sparked outrage in Afghanistan and beyond, and has generated threats of reprisal and calls to re-examine the U.S. military role in that country.
After Bales' arrest, the sergeant's family called Browne. Browne believes publicity from the Harris-Moore case got him the job.
Browne's approach to the case has been notably aggressive. He has accused the government of withholding evidence and, according to Reuters, wants to replace the military lawyer assigned to Bales' defense.
For decades, one of Browne's signatures — in the media, in the courts — has been to humanize the defendant while shifting the focus from a crime to the circumstances. With Bales, Browne lost little time telling reporters about Bales' military background: three previous deployments to Iraq, wartime trauma, a possible brain injury.
Browne told NBC: "I think the war is on trial."
He told The Seattle Times: "These people are broken, and we've broken them."
He told The Associated Press: "If I can help create a discussion about the war, that would be a great way for me to go out."
Dark mustache, top hat
Browne is such a fixture in legal circles that he's been profiled by newspapers for decades: born in Tennessee; father worked for the Atomic Energy Commission; played bass in a rock band while a University of Denver student; turned to law school after being jailed on a bogus charge — later dropped — of writing a bad check.
As a lawyer, Browne's style has drawn as much attention as his success: barbed-wire tattoo; tall frame, long hair and, on occasion, loud clothes; multiple marriages; motorcycles; fast living in the '80s coupled with a spiritual awakening — sweat lodges, Buddhist prayer stones, the 13th-century poetry of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi.
In recent years, Browne has been working on a memoir. His working title is "Music, Metaphysics, and Murderers."
Cris Williamson was the singer in Browne's old band, Crystal Palace Guard. "It was such a groove," she says.
The band did mostly covers, such as Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." They opened for The Yardbirds in a converted Safeway. And they opened for The Doors. "Mind you, they were probably on at midnight and we were on at 6," Williamson says. "But we opened for them."
Browne was "real smart," funny, politically aware "and good with stories, like he is now," Williamson says. And then there was his look: dark mustache, beard stubble, top hat. "He looked like a bandito."
To some lawyers, Browne can still come across that way. Crafting a defense, Browne often finds a way to go on the offensive. In one case he demanded to know if authorities were intercepting his telephone calls. Marilyn Brenneman, a King County prosecutor at the time, says: "I was unbelievably blown away that he would make such an absurd, off-the-wall allegation."
Brenneman describes Browne as "high-strung" with a "certain self-deprecating nature." In front of a jury, he can be compelling, she says. "I like John. I think he's amusing," she says. "I think he's got a sense of humor, which is so often lacking in attorneys."
William Downing, a King County Superior Court judge, faced Browne as a prosecutor and has watched him from the bench. He says Browne's "self-confidence will sometimes carry him farther in the court of public opinion than inside a courtroom, but those early stages can have a way of setting a case on a favorable course."
"This may not be deliberate — his style may be as innate as his height — but his persona can have an interesting effect on opposing counsel," Downing says. "Prosecutors may contort themselves into awkward poses to avoid being caught in his shadow. It's as if they suddenly want to include their middle names, too."
Browne says he's less likely to alienate prosecutors these days, a good thing when it comes to plea bargaining. "I'm not as much of an asshole as I used to be," he says. "I've definitely mellowed. I don't assume all prosecutors are evil — which I did, for a while."
"Rattling my swords"
Browne started his legal career in the state Attorney General's Office and as a King County public defender. But few years passed before he moved into private practice.
He defended Seattle Seahawk Duke Fergerson, acquitted of rape in 1980. "Had it not been for God and John Henry Browne, I'd probably be a bitter man today," Fergerson said afterward.
In 1983, Browne persuaded a jury to spare the life of Benjamin Ng, a shooter in the Wah Mee massacre that left 13 dead. Browne argued Ng was brain damaged — a strategy that, given Browne's references to Bales having a brain injury, could be revived in the Afghanistan case.
In 1995 Browne defended Martin Pang, who fled to Brazil after setting a warehouse fire that killed four Seattle firefighters. Brazil's highest court ruled that Pang could be extradited only if he wasn't charged with murder. After Browne persuaded the Washington State Supreme Court to uphold that agreement, a plea deal was struck, with Pang getting 35 years for manslaughter.
Representing Pang, Browne put King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng on the defensive. Trying without success to get Maleng's office removed from the case, Browne linked Maleng's public statements about the crime to his run for governor. "Mr. Maleng's normally professional approach to criminal-justice issues has been compromised in this case," Browne wrote in a court filing.
Associates who have worked for Browne speak of his exhaustive preparation.
"He's great at utilizing what others may see as a very small weakness in a prosecution case," Seattle attorney Tim Tesh says.
On appeal, Browne represented a Clark County man, David Kunze, the first person in the country convicted on evidence of an earprint match. The science was so untested that the state's criminologists hadn't even taken an earprint exemplar before. Preparing for Kunze, they practiced on lab staff.
Browne won a new trial for Kunze — who was serving life for murder — by showing how malleable ears were and how little support there was for earprint identification among forensic experts.
Before Kunze's retrial in 2001, Browne subpoenaed Department of Corrections records for an inmate who was claiming Kunze had confessed to him. Browne still relishes his resulting exchange with the witness, which he describes this way: "It says here, you like to have sex with cows. And he said to me, indignantly, 'No, calves.' "
In the end, prosecutors dropped their charges and Kunze went free.
Browne's miscalculations can be as telling as his successes. In 1994 he represented Darrell Cloud, accused of taking an assault rifle and murdering his former middle-school teacher after years of sexual abuse. Browne didn't like the state's plea offer, and he told Cloud's family there was a 95 percent chance of a favorable outcome at trial.
He proved too confident. A King County jury rejected Cloud's insanity defense and convicted him of first-degree murder. That night, Browne went to the jail and cried with Cloud for a couple of hours.
On appeal, Cloud challenged Browne's competence. Deposed in 1995, Browne detailed the defense's inner workings.
Browne said he shared with the media examples of the teacher's abuse in hopes of pressuring Maleng into a better plea offer. In what he called "rattling my swords," Browne said he told prosecutors, "We are going to kick your butt all over the courtroom on national TV."
On the subject of touting his win-loss record, Browne said clients deserve to know: "Just like finding a neurosurgeon, 'How many operations have you performed and how many patients have you lost?' "
Browne said he took Cloud's case for $25,000 plus expenses, knowing that if it went to trial, he'd probably lose money. Why take that risk? he was asked. "Because I believed in Darrell," he said. With all the time Browne put into the case, he lost "$50,000 at least."
During the deposition, Browne needled the lawyer questioning him — "As I have just told you, and maybe I will just speak slower ... " — and took shots at another attorney who had challenged Browne's work. "A plea bargainer," Browne called him.
A King County judge ultimately ordered a new trial, saying Browne's "unreasonable assessment" of Cloud's trial prospects had hurt plea negotiations. Afterward, Cloud cut a deal; he was convicted of second-degree murder and had eight years shaved off his 20-year sentence.
Of marriages and money
Defending Colton Harris-Moore, Browne took a financial hit. He says he handled the case for $1, paid by Harris-Moore's aunt.
"To me, he was clearly someone who needed help," Browne says. "I thought it would take 50, maybe 100 hours of work. And it took over 300. But once I promise someone something, I felt I was obligated to make good on my promise."
"I've been literally close to bankruptcy in the last couple of months, mostly because of Colton," Browne says. "A lot of people think I have a lot of money. I don't."
To reduce his overhead, Browne recently moved from a penthouse office in the Exchange Building to Pioneer Square. Above his door a license plate says: ACQUIT. The Lynnwood Police Department gave it to him, Browne says, in thanks for his successful defense of an officer facing criminal charges.
In the Bales case, Browne is doing something that he says makes him uncomfortable: looking for help from a legal-defense fund. "This case is going to cost a million or two million, at least. So I'm very much hoping that this fund will cover that."
A glimpse of Browne's finances over the years can be found in court records. That's because he has been divorced — a lot. But ask about his marriages, and that's one number he shies from. "I don't talk about the number. Too many," he says.
His current marriage — — "I'm on my last marriage now," he says — appears to be his seventh, from descriptions in court records. Divorce files in three counties show that his wives have included at least two lawyers, a massage therapist, a marketing director and a woman who later pursued a doctorate in psychology.
From wedding to separation, the periods have typically been brief — 15 months, 24 months, 26 months, 14 months, two and a half years — ending in a court file that says: "This marriage is irretrievably broken." Browne says he takes "full responsibility for those failed relationships." He says he was an "asshole" who was "really hard to live with."
"But I'm not like that anymore," he says.
In the mid-'80s, Browne listed his gross income as $31,000, according to divorce records. By 1994, it was $120,000. In 2006 his wife at the time — she described herself as No. 6 — put Browne's income at $472,000.
She wrote in court records that they lived a high lifestyle, with "four to five vacations every year to Mexico and fancy resorts." The file showed $25,000 owed to credit-card companies.
In the court file, this wife said Browne told her "this would be his first marriage as a sober person." He explained leaving her by saying he "should not be a married person," the wife wrote.
Browne says he does not enjoy the business side of being a lawyer — and court records reflect the occasional challenges of getting paid.
Once, representing an alleged drug dealer, Browne's firm received as payment a 1961 Rolls-Royce. But Kent police kept trying to seize the car — claiming it was a proceed of drug trafficking — prompting Browne to secure an injunction, forcing police to back off.
In 2005, the Washington State Bar Association gave an admonition — its lowest form of discipline — to Browne over a fee dispute, saying he had charged more than was warranted under a written fee agreement. Browne said an assistant prepared that agreement without him knowing about it.
"A farce, f-a-r-c-e"
Last year, in Kitsap County, Browne took a case with a low profile and turned it into the talk of the courthouse.
His client, Dominic Briceno, was accused of dealing opiates out of a casino hotel. After Browne's hiring, prosecutors tacked on a charge of leading organized crime, a move Browne criticized as overreach.
After the trial began in June, Browne accused Superior Court Judge Theodore Spearman of misinterpreting the law and favoring the prosecution. Spearman warned Browne against making long-winded objections in front of the jury.
A week into trial, Spearman decided Browne was ignoring his warnings. The judge removed the jury, held Browne in contempt, fined him $500 and pondered sending him to jail.
Later, when the trial resumed, Browne told the judge: "This trial has turned into a farce, f-a-r-c-e."
Spearman fined Browne another $500. Browne called the judge's rulings "bizarre." He said the judge was dealing with "cognitive defects." Browne said he was ethically obliged to quit the case because his client was not getting a fair trial.
"I have no intention of paying a dime," Browne told the judge. "The Judicial Conduct Commission will look into this. The Court of Appeals will look into this. But I'm done. OK. You can put me in jail."
Spearman: "You are not done with this — "
Browne: "Call the jailer. Call the jailer."
As this went on, Browne's client piped up: "It's like a carnival in here."
The prosecutor told Spearman that Browne was trying to sabotage the trial. She said Browne seemed intent "from day one" on getting a mistrial, in apparent hopes that prosecutors would be forced to drop their charges.
The next day, Browne asked the judge to postpone the trial and get a mental evaluation. The judge refused.
When the jury was brought back in and the trial resumed, Browne stood up and declared he would not take part. The jury was sent back out.
Spearman told Browne that "zealous advocacy" should not be confused with "insolence and arrogance."
"I submit that lawyers who know how to think but have not learned how to behave are a menace and a liability, not an asset to the administration of justice," Spearman said.
When the jury was sent out that last time, one juror asked the bailiff, "Will I get in trouble if I punch the defense attorney?"
That was enough to force a mistrial.
The charges against Briceno are pending. A new trial — with another defense attorney — is scheduled for August.
Spearman elected to wait until Briceno's charges were resolved before deciding what action, if any, to take against Browne.
But in January, Spearman, 64, died of a brain aneurysm.
In February, the presiding judge wrote Browne about his "potentially contemptuous conduct." She said Spearman alone had the authority to impose sanctions. With the judge's death, Browne no longer faced any threat of being jailed or fined.
Browne says, "Never paid a dime, and won't."
On Twitter @jmartin206.