Defending the Despised: How defense attorneys justify and cope with representing some of the most reviled among us

HUNTSVILLE, Ala - Two Huntsville defense attorneys, Bruce Gardner and Robert Tuten, have represented several of the most reviled defendants in Madison County over the past several years.

The work doesn’t make them popular, but they both see their roles as essential to safeguarding the Constitution and the rights guaranteed to all U.S. defendants.

“The public generally reviles you for thinking that those kind of people need any kind of defense, at all. Let alone a fair trial,” Gardner told WHNT News 19 in a recent interview.

 

Many of their high-profile cases are court-appointed, where a judge has asked them to defend a client – often facing the most serious punishment -- who can’t afford competent counsel.

Tuten was a Huntsville police officer before he attended law school.

He helped defend University of Alabama in Huntsville shooter Amy Bishop, who killed three of her colleagues. He represented Kenneth Shipp, who killed Huntsville Police Department officer Eric Freeman.  Tuten’s defense helped convince a jury and judge that Shipp should not get the death penalty.

And, Tuten won an acquittal for Eric Parker, the Madison police officer who faced a federal excessive force charge for injuring an Indian grandfather during a 2015 encounter in a quiet Madison neighborhood.

Huntsville attorney Bruce Gardner was a prosecutor before going into criminal defense work.

He helped persuade a jury to acquit Heather McGill, charged with killing her kids in a fire in Toney in 1997. He represented Hammad Memon, who pleaded guilty to killing a 9th grade, classmate, Todd Brown at Discovery Middle School.

Gardner is currently the outspoken defender of Aziz Sayyed, who is charged in a Huntsville terrorism plot.

The lawyers are aware that providing a defense in many of these cases makes some in the community angry. That doesn’t deter their efforts.

“To be involved in the justice system, I think first of all, you have to truly believe in the Constitution,” Tuten said.

Gardner said their role is vital to the justice system.

“I think that the minute we stop believing in the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair and impartial jury, the right to a trial, the right to have effective, constitutionally adequate counsel represent people, that, that, to me that’s what America stands for,” Gardner said.

Some of the things they’ve seen and heard aren’t easy to shake or understand. Tuten says the intersection of mental health problems and the criminal justice system is a woefully unaddressed problem.

The hardest part isn’t dealing with someone who appears to be guilty, based on the evidence, Tuten said. He said it’s “talking to the clients and realizing their humanity.”

For Gardner, the challenges he faces in court are also rooted in human nature.

“The people I represent just don’t, can’t seem to control the irrational savage that’s in them, but I think to a certain extent it’s in all of us,” he said.

The most common question criminal defense attorneys are asked is pretty straightforward: ‘How can you defend someone who’s done such terrible things?’

Tuten has a ready answer.

“We wouldn’t think too much of a doctor who refused to treat a patient because they’re too sick, you know … why is practicing law and being a lawyer, any different?”

Gardner has been threatened and called un-American for his role defending Aziz Sayyed. He sees it differently.

“It’s always been astounding to me that the prosecutor always gets to wear the white hat and talk about the Constitution and a fair trial and everything like that, and when I do it, I’m somehow seen as some sort of charlatan.

“It’s our side that the Constitution was designed for.”