Lawyers Describe What It's Like To Defend The World's Most Notorious Killers

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a serial killer's lawyer? Do those representatives of the law ever get disgusted by their clients? Are they somehow able to remain neutral while defending some of the worst people who have ever lived? Is it possible that the lawyers secretly wish that their clients won't get off? It's entirely possible that they do but whether their respective clients are guilty or not, lawyers must represent them.

The following list offers insight about lawyers who've defend serial killers and what they had to say about the cases. While all the attorneys tend to agree that the circumstances were mentally exhausting, some seem to have faired worse than others. The man who defended Aileen Wuornos actually said that his life was ruined as a result of the case. Still, some others preferred to look at the positive aspects of working with notorious criminals. One man who represented John Wayne Gacy believed that the case had a positive impact on his life.

As long as depraved men and women kill, defense attorneys will have jobs. The exceptionally good attorneys will even land some surprising acquittals. None of the guilty parties on this list were acquitted but read on to learn about the lawyers who defended them.


  • Lawyer Gerald Boyle knew Jeffrey Dahmer before he earned the title of "Milwaukee Cannibal." He represented Dahmer in 1989 for a child molestation conviction. Although no one knew at the time, Dahmer had already killed five young men. In 1991, Dahmer was apprehended by police after an intended victim escaped. The criminal was arrested when police went to his home and discovered skeletons, human heads, and severed body parts. Dahmer received several life sentences for the 17 lives he took but was killed by another inmate while in prison. 

    In 2003, Dahmer's former lawyer appeared on Court TV to discuss serial killer Gary Ridgway's sentencing. During the interview, Boyle was asked what he thought about Dahmer's murder and whether he felt a friendship toward him. Boyle answered

    Clearly there was no relief. I didn't want him to be killed. Dahmer was a very sick man. I believed then and I believe now he was mentally ill and very seriously mentally ill. We shouldn't want mentally ill people killed. I think vengeance is really the Lord's. I'm not against street self-defense, but the government shouldn't be in that business. If the death penalty worked, we'd have a lessening of crime. We don't. Sitting in jail the rest of one's natural life sounds more harsh to me than killing them. I know I'd rather be dead than doing life imprisonment in any prison anywhere.

    Was he a friend? No. But I did feel great empathy for the man. He was absolutely the saddest person I've ever known. He never had a friend for more than a half hour in his life. He was completely lonely, living his life in abject loneliness. With that in mind, you had to feel sorry for him. He was probably the easiest client I've ever had. He was so compliant, never complained, wanted nothing more than just to die. He thought he was the devil and even though he did the evilest acts of anyone I have ever known he was far from the most evil person I've represented.

    When he was sentenced the detectives that arrested him and got the confession and put the case together asked me if they could go see him and say goodbye. The jailers said he was the easiest guy they've ever had. So you see he was pathetic.

  • Irving Kanarek was Charles Manson's lawyer during the infamous 1970 Tate-LaBianca trial. In fact, an angry Manson attacked Kanarek in the courtroom. The attorney has been very open and honest about his feelings toward defending Manson. He stated:

    It wasn't a difficult decision to take the Manson case. My purpose was to fight legally admissible evidence, and the amount of that was scant. His guilt was based on a few hearsay words, inadmissible in court, that he supposedly told this guy to do a number on the Tate residence. No question he was legally innocent. And, more than that, he was actually innocent. There was no evidence connecting him to those murders. The newspapers, the magazines, the motion pictures got people all excited - Manson as the embodiment of human evil.

    Charlie wasn't a monster. When you look at the legally admissible evidence, you come to a very different conclusion. Just looking at him from objective considerations, he's a personable person.

  • William Kelley was Charles Ng's lawyer during his 1998 murder trial. Ng, along with partner in crime Leonard Lake, was responsible for the rape, torture, and murder of between 11 and 25 victims. He was found guilty of 11 murders and sentenced to death. About defending Ng, Kelley has stated:

    Was I horrified by my client? In the murder arena, you just don't have that sort of mindset. You're thinking, I'm going to do the darnedest I can to defend this person as well as I possibly can. You want to prevail. You're battling the other side. Whether or not he gets off is up to the jury.

    It was necessary to try to understand Charles Ng to defend him. Our relationship was not real cordial, because he was constantly criticizing. I told him, 'I'm the experienced lawyer, we're going to do it my way...' 

    Some of the victims' relatives hated me. You can't try murder cases successfully if you get emotionally involved with the victims. You have to be very, very objective. And kind of cold. You can sympathize at some level, think about it on the first day when they're in the gallery crying. But once that gavel comes down and the game starts, that's it, they're just not part of what you're doing.

    Kelley also shared that he has a few pieces of origami that Ng created on his mantelpiece to remind him of his former client. 

  • Grady Query began representing Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins in 1976 and from that time until Gaskins's execution on September 6, 1991, the two spent hundreds of hours together. Gaskins was convicted of nine murders, although he confessed to over 100. Query has said that he learned a lot about the law and humanity while defending Gaskins. He went on to say:

    Hopefully something that we could learn, something by looking more closely at him and perhaps realizing something about what combination of things have brought to be a person capable of killing perhaps 50 or more people. I don't think you can know someone for 10 or 12 years and not have some feeling for them at their death.

    Query has written a two-volume book about Gaskins titled, Pee Wee Serial Killer or Homicidal Maniac: A Novelized True Crime Story.

  • Throughout the '70s and '80s, John Henry Browne served as Ted Bundy's lawyer. Bundy, who confessed to the murder of 30 people but is suspected to have killed 100, was executed for his crimes on February 9, 1978 but Browne has spoken at length about defending the man, attending public speaking engagements and writing about the case in his memoir, Sympathy for the Devil. In regards to defending Bundy, Browne has stated:

    I usually have some emotional engagement with clients, but Ted Bundy was a perfect example of someone born evil. I had no compassion for him. But I did want to save him from the death penalty. He was, at times, smart and handsome. To sit down and talk to him... 

    Ted did tell me something that showed he was 2% not sociopath. He said, 'John, I want to be a good person, I'm just not.'

  • Peter Ritchie Defended Robert Pickton But Desired To Advocate For His Client Ardently
    Photo: Tonya D Flores Ent / YouTube

    Peter Ritchie was the lead defense lawyer for serial killer Robert Pickton, the Canadian pig farmer responsible for the deaths of at least 26 women. Ritchie worked as Pickton's lawyer during the six-year trial that began in 2007. Ultimately, Pickton was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. During that time, the attorney received a lot of hateful telephone calls for defending Pickton but he refused to allow negativity to affect him. He said

    We just are there to do our jobs and advocate our case to the best for our client. We're not there to act as public relations officers for our client. We're there to assiduously pursue his defense and do it in the highest ethical manner possible.