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Empathy of defense attorney Beller '04 makes for powerful advocacy

Beller '04

It is the job of the criminal defense attorney to humanize his or her client for the judge and jury — to learn the defendant’s story and to relate it in a compelling way. 

“The most hardened of offenders breaks when they realize they have someone advocating, not just for their legal posture, but for their worth as a person — especially when no one else will,” said David M. Beller ’04

In November 2008, a little over a year after he moved from the Colorado Public Defender’s Office to private practice at Recht Kornfeld PC in Denver, a high-profile homicide case landed on Beller’s desk. Just four years into his legal career, he had defended individuals accused of murder before, but never in a case with this kind of media frenzy. 

Beller had been asked to represent Willie Clark, a man alleged to have committed two grim murders only weeks apart. Clark was accused of the 2007 New Year’s Day drive-by killing of Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams and the December 2006 shooting of state witness Kalonnian Clark —no relation — in her home, days before she was to testify against Willie Clark’s gang boss in a homicide case. 

“These cases were some of the highest profile and well-known in Colorado since the Jon Benet Ramsey killing,” said Beller, who was one of two attorneys appointed to represent Clark in the Kalonnian Clark murder case. “The media coverage, both local and national, was constant.” 

Beller has quickly established himself as an attorney to watch. Since leaving Toledo Law in 2004, he has tried more than 50 jury cases. He was recognized as a “Criminal Defense Rising Star” in 2012 and the three years previous by Colorado Super Lawyers, and as one of “Colorado’s Top 40 Under 40” in 2012 by The National Trial Lawyers Association.

When talking with Beller, his passion for trial work is immediately evident. A frequent guest lecturer at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a faculty member for Colorado Alternate Defense Counsel, where he teaches trial skills to criminal defense lawyers, it is clear that Beller enjoys the challenge that the courtroom presents. 

But his career could have taken a different path. With a bachelor’s degree in environmental health from Colorado State University, Beller considered heading into the fields of environmental or patent law when he entered Toledo Law. However, after winning the Charles W. Fornoff Appellate Advocacy Competition, Beller realized he had talent in the courtroom. “Professor Zietlow’s constitutional law class coupled with Professor — now Dean — Steinbock’s stories of being a [New York] public defender made me quickly realize that criminal defense was the best confluence of trial work, constitutional law, public service, and individual client contact,” Beller said.

At the time he accepted Willie Clark’s case, Beller knew Clark only from media accounts and by the heinousness of the alleged crimes. But after years preparing for trial and countless hours spent together, Beller’s opinion has evolved. He described Clark as funny, compassionate, and intelligent. “While many people may cringe at the idea of a twice-convicted murderer being called compassionate, knowing and understanding his whole life story makes this an easy word to use when describing him,” said Beller. 

Moreover, Beller now sees a tragic inevitability in Clark’s life — abandoned in a crack house at just three months of age and racing up a street gang’s ranks in his youth. Beller recognizes a pattern that destined Clark to end up in a courtroom, with Beller seated next to him. 

“I have yet to meet a client I believed to be a ‘cold-hearted killer.’ Each had a life story or circumstance, usually rooted in abuse, abandonment, and poverty, that allows you to understand where they were mentally at the moment of the crime,” Beller said. “While it rarely if ever excuses the conduct, the understanding has always made me a better advocate for them. Rarely have I ever had to emotionally rely on the old go-to ‘it makes the system work, everyone deserves a defense’ line defense attorneys often cite as justification for their work.”

When Willie Clark’s trial began in October 2011 — nearly five years after Kalonnian Clark was murdered — Clark was 28 and already serving life plus 1,152 years in state prison for the drive-by killing of Bronco Darrent Williams. 

Though the death penalty is rarely pursued in Colorado, “we had an African-American defendant, two killings, one of them a witness killing and the other a beloved and well-known athlete,” said Beller. “If ever there was a case to ‘go death’ it seemed to be this one.” But arguing mitigation for Clark’s life, litigation costs to the taxpayer, and the unpopularity of the death penalty among Denver County residents, Clark’s attorneys were able to convince the district attorney not to pursue the death penalty. 

The trial ran several weeks. When it was over, the jury of 12 took two and a half days to review the evidence and to convict Willie Clark of the murder of Kalonnian Clark. He was sentenced to a second life term in prison and an additional 420 years. 

“Willie hoped for the best and expected the worst,” Beller and his team said in a media statement following the verdict. “He is disappointed but not surprised … The man we’ve grown to care about over the last three years is not the same person the government claims him to be.” 

Beller has not taken a homicide case since Willie Clark was sentenced nearly a year ago, saying that he sorely needed a break. But each client whom Beller represents receives the same compassion and understanding that Clark received. “I find the heart and emotion relatively easy to find when there is an understanding of the client and judgment for their alleged act is left for someone else to champion.”

This story first appeared in the Fall 2012 Transcript.

Last Updated: 2/2/18