In 1989, attorney Ray Clark got a telephone call that would make him, for a while, one of the most famous lawyers in Los Angeles.
The call to his small firm was from the presiding judge in the trial of Richard Ramirez, accused of being the brutal serial killer known as the Night Stalker. The defense team that Ramirez’s family had hired was falling apart, and the judge wanted Clark to take over as lead defense counsel. Clark agreed, and soon became a fixture in printed and broadcast news accounts, protesting his client’s innocence.
He lost the case, and Ramirez was given the death penalty.
In some ways, it was a thankless task to represent a sadistic killer who had terrorized the city. But the Los Angeles County Superior Court judge at the trial, Michael Tynan, said Clark’s stance was an honorable one.
“I think Ray knew that if our system was going to work correctly, even the most vilified defendant was entitled to a good defense,” Tynan said last week. “Ray took on the job and did it with courage and professionalism.”
Clark, 82, died Jan. 7 at his home in Los Angeles. The cause was Parkinson’s disease, said his daughter, Dawn Clark-Johnson.
The law was a second career for Clark, and he specialized in death penalty cases. The Ramirez case was especially difficult, not only because of eyewitness accounts and physical evidence, but also because the defendant — a self-proclaimed devil worshiper who tortured some of his victims — didn’t much want to be defended.
“At one point Richard Ramirez forbade us to put on a defense of any sort,” said Clark-Johnson, who is also an attorney and aided her father in the case. After consulting with the state bar, they went ahead despite their client’s wishes. Clark told reporters the defense tactic would be “S.O.D.D.I.” — “some other dude did it.” To that end, he challenged eyewitnesses, looking for possibilities that they might have misidentified the killer.
In a final argument that took 31/2 hours, he invoked Abraham Lincoln, Watergate, Jimmy Hoffa and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, amid other topics. But Ramirez was convicted of 13 murders. He died last year from complications due to blood cancer, while on San Quentin’s death row. Under California law, death sentences are automatically appealed, a process that can take decades. Ramirez’s appeal to the state Supreme Court was finally turned down in 2006, but there were more legal proceedings pending.
In 1991, Clark was named criminal defense lawyer of the year by the John M. Langston Bar Assn., the oldest and largest organization of African American lawyers, judges and law students in California. He continued to practice until 2002, when the symptoms of Parkinson’s began to interfere with his work. After that, he managed real estate properties he had acquired and did volunteer work.
Ray Gonzales Clark was born in Old Town, Fla., on Jan. 30, 1931. The unincorporated town, west of Gainesville, was so poor that in the local school photo from Clark’s time, none of the children were wearing shoes, Clark-Johnson said. Clark spent four years in the Air Force, then used the G.I. Bill to get an engineering degree at Howard University in Washington, graduating in 1957. He and his wife, Barbara, moved that year to Los Angeles, where he worked for North American Aviation (which later became part of Rockwell) on aviation and aerospace projects.
With a downturn in the aviation industry, Clark enrolled in Southwestern Law School in 1970, and upon graduating and passing the bar three years later, started his own practice.
“He was very humble about anything he did,” Clark-Johnson said. “But he came from so little to become so much.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Clark is survived by his brother, Harold Clark, and a granddaughter.