Lawyers Who Defend Terrorists, the Most Hated People in America

Defending terrorists takes a punishing physical and mental toll on some.

Jan. 12, 2010— -- When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab takes his seat in a Detroit federal courtroom next month, he will do so as one of the most hated men in Amnerica.

But what about the woman next to him? Chief Public Defender Miriam Siefer hasn't yet spoken about her newest client, but those who came before her say representing terrorists comes with a unique set of stresses that can take a punishing toll.

"It was a huge strain," Gerald Zerkin, attorney for Zacarias Moussaoui, the only 9/11 conspirator yet to go on trial, told "I wouldn't want to do it again."

Defending a national pariah involves enormous legal pressures, a white hot spotlight, even having unnerving access to classified information that you can't share with anybody.

Zerkin, 60, only hinted at the toll he endured while assigned to defend Moussaoui, who was convicted in 2006.

"It took a physical toll," he said, though he declined to answer whether he needed to seek medical treatment.

"If they offered me KSM now, I would say, 'been there, done that,'" he said, referring to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

The terrorists and the cause they represent, however, seemingly bring about the least of the headaches for the attorneys accustomed to defending the worst of the worst.

"Our job, what we do every day, is to represent people who are hated," Zerkin said. "You don't do this work very long or very well if you've got any compunction about that."

Zerkin was working as an assistant public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia Office of the Federal Public Defender when he was tapped to work on Moussaoui's defense in late 2001. It was an assignment, he said, that came as no surprise.

"After 9/11, before our office opened, I was walking down the street and ran into the chief death penalty prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office and we both commented that if anybody in a conspiracy for this survived, it could be coming our way," he said. "Both for him and for me."

Though Zerkin said he now looks back on the experience "through the lenses of PTSD, I think," he remembered being ready for the challenge.

"I think I was excited by it. That's true," he said. "Obviously, we knew it was going to be a huge challenge."

Defending a Terrorist: 'You're Under a Microscope'

But in the heat of a post-9/11 world where everyone was eager to lay blame for the attacks that had rocked the country's sense of stability, mounting a defense for the man who was, at the time, the sole surviving face of the attacks proved daunting.

"It is enourmously stressful -- enormously. You're under a microscope," Zerkin said. "The condition under which you work -- we have classified information. It's a strain."

Likewise, it was the attention outside the courtroom rather than the testimony inside that proved the biggest obstacle for Tamar Birckhead, one of the federal defenders for al Qaeda shoe bomber Richard Reid.

Five months pregnant when she was tapped to defend the man who tried to bring down a Miami-bound airplane with a bomb hidden in the sole of his sneaker, Birckhead said it was the public attention, not the nature of her client's crime, that got to her.

"I was definitely apprehensive just about the press coverage, really, knowing there was going to be a tremendous amount of attention to the case," she said. "And I had not been in that position."

Birckhead, 44, now an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, remembered the sinking feeling she got watching President Bush's State of the Union address that following January. It was a speech, she said, that all but convicted her client before a jury had even been chosen.

"Richard was still presumed innocent, supposedly, and President Bush made statements during that address that assumed he was guilty and would be punished to the full extent of the law," she said.

It was a faux pas, she said, that President Obama came close to making during recent comments about the dealth penalty and Abdulmutallab.

"That always presents difficulties from the defense perspective," she said.

Birckhead, who was earning between $70,000 and $75,000 at the time, said she was actually proud to stand next to Richard Reid in the courtroom.

"Personally -- and I'm not alone in this feeling – his intent, whatever his true intent and determination had been to successfully detonate those explosives that were in his sneakers, it might be hard to swallow, but that has no impact on me as a human being," she said.

"I've represented clients charged with all kinds of heinous, violent criminal offenses that people would find just beyond the pale. It's clearly hard for me to articulate. I'm committed to the role and I related to my clients as human beings," she said. "It would take a psychoanalyst to figure out why I'm so comfortable in that role."

Neither Birckhead or Zerkin were offered any protection or security during their trials, nor did either feel they needed it.

Birckhead said she's still not convinced that Reid ever intended to bring down that plane, a defense she never got to test since Reid pleaded guilty. It's a notion that may be worth examining for the Abdulmutallab case, she said. Abdulmutallab has pleaded not guilty.

"Someone put explosives in their shoes or underpants and gets on a plane and nothing happens," she said. "I don't think it's unreasonable to question whether that individual really had the intent for this to go well.

"Yeah, maybe it's complete incompetence, but there's got to be some degree of having second thoughts," she said.

Sorting Out Fact From Mass Hysteria in Terrorism Cases

It isn't yet publicly known how Miriam Siefer will defend the latest terrorism headliner or what emotions she may have about her new case. She did not return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment.

Margaret Sind Raben, who has known Siefer for more than two decades and is a colleague in Detroit's criminal defense community, said she has spoken to Siefer about Abdulmutallab.

"The facts are horrifying on every level you can consider," Raben said. "The human response is, 'Oh, my god.' And the professional response is. 'I'm on my way.'"

Though this will be Siefer's first terrorism case, Raben said she has a notable "capacity to analyze cases to sort out the public hysteria from the facts."

And the hysteria in this case, so far, has been ample. Days after Abdulmutallab's arrest, authorities were summoned to the airport after a Nigerian man refused to come out of the bathroom on the very same flight. He was later determined to have been suffering from diarrhea.

Abdulmutallab's case "certainly came gift wrapped [for prosecutors] if you will," Raben said.

"They seem to have an enormous amount of evidence already and have selected a variety of charges," she said. "The fact that there is a variety of charges would lead a defense attorney to think there is room to negotiate."

For Zerkin, who has stayed on with the Office of the Federal Defender and now works as capital resource counsel, the only advice he had for Siefer was to "go for it."

"Be prepared for a crazy ride," he said. "Just hold your head up."