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The Client Who Became a Suspect

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR news it's DAY TO DAY.

BRAND: A Nation-wide manhunt continues, for a wealthy pawnshop-owner from Reno Nevada. Police suspect Darren Mack murdered his estranged wife and shot a family court judge, last week. The judge survived, he had been overseeing Mack's divorce. The case is one of those strange tabloid stories of a normal man who allegedly snaps. But, it's something more to our regular legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick who's what the online magazine Slate.

BRAND: Back when Dahlia worked in a family law firm, in Reno, Darren Mack was her client. And she joins us now, for her unique prospective. And Dahlia, tell us how you knew Darren Mack and the women he allegedly killed - his estranged wife, Charla Mack.

DAHLIA LITHWICK (NPR Legal Analyst): Right after law school, Madeleine, I clerked for a federal judge in Reno. And then I loved Reno, so I stuck around for a couple of years and clerked at a family law firm, there. And so, Darren Mack was simply one of our clients. He and Charla were involved in a custody dispute with his first wife, over the children from his first marriage. And so, I saw him fairly frequently.

BRAND: You know in cases like this when people know the neighbor who has gone berserk. They always seem to say, oh he seemed like the nicest guy who would never hurt a fly, I'm shocked. Was he like that?

LITHWICK: I'm certainly shocked, because, if he did what he's alleged to do, he doesn't sort of fit any profile that I've ever seen - of someone who takes out a sniper's rifle and tries to take out a judge from the distance of three football fields, and you know, hacks up his wife.

You know, he was - what I can say about him is he is very smart, very intense. I can't say too much, obviously, because everything is sort of privileged, but I can say that he loved his kids, and he really very, very strongly, felt identified as their dad.

BRAND: Well Dahlia, do you think that that may have been Darren Mack's un-doing?

LITHWICK: It's funny Madeleine, in my Slate piece on this, I point out that in 1998 there was a billboard posted on a street in Reno, by Charla Mack. It said "The Mack's Family Presents Darren Mack 1998 Father/Husband of the year, a unanimous decision by his wife Charla, and his three wonderful children."

I think that bespeaks the public way, in which these people parented. And, I think the family court can be devastating for people like that. Family court almost never says what you want it to say, which is, the other parent sucks, and I'm a great parent. They almost never say you have no relationship with the kid going forward, the other parent will. They try as much as possible to sort of split the baby -- make everybody get, sort of, half of what they wanted.

And that can be very, very unsatisfying, and frustrating, if you are the sort of person who really treasures your relationship with your children, above all.

BRAND: You know Dahlia, there's been a lot written about this, about the perils that judges in these cases face. And do you think from your prospective, from working in this part of the law that -- that it's a particularly dangerous role for judges to take, the role of deciding intimate questions of family and whose right, and whose wrong?

LITHWICK: Oh, absolutely. I mean there's nothing more personal and intimate than questions about money, and family, and relationships, and sex - and all of those things are bound up in family court - in a way that, you know, simple property matters are not. And I think that there is a cliché in divorce law, that goes, criminal lawyers see that their very bad people, at their very best. Divorce lawyers see extremely good people at their very worst.

LITHWICK: And I think that the same is true of family court judges, they see otherwise completely normal wonderful upstanding loving parents and spouses, just in the point of their lives where sometimes, their kind of out of control. And I think that makes for a very, very tough job.

BRAND: Well, thank you Dahlia.

LITHWICK: My pleasure.

BRAND: That's opinion and analysis from Dahlia Lithwick. She covers the courts for the online magazine Slate and for us here at DAY TO DAY.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Stay with us, DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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