Polygamy’s Protector | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Polygamy’s Protector 

How can an attorney of conscience defend plural marriage? Ask John Bucher.

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John Bucher still remembers why he decided to go to law school. While attending East High School in the early 1960s, Bucher was falsely accused by the police of making harassing phone calls.

“Every few days they would bring me into the principal’s office and make me talk to this cop. And he kept working on me very heavily, getting me to confess to a crime I didn’t do.”

The cop grilled him for three weeks, and Bucher was about to confess to the crime just to make the cop go away when his friend was caught making a similar call. Bucher was off the hook, but he never forgot the ordeal. “That always stuck in my head, the power this man had over me. I was captured in the principal’s office and my parents felt powerless. They didn’t do anything about it and I wouldn’t talk to them because I was embarrassed, and the principal didn’t protect me at all.”

For John Richard Bucher (pronounced “Boo-er”), a brash iconoclast who is one of the most passionate and sought-after defenders of Mormon polygamists in Utah, what was most galling about that incident was having no one to advocate for his position. As a result, Bucher embraces the idea that everyone deserves a chance to tell his or her side of the story. Polygamists come to him for representation because, as he puts it, “They want to fight—I fight. I won’t compromise their religious principles.”

Bucher has represented Addam Swapp, the fiery young fundamentalist who blew up an LDS stakehouse and Tom Green, the polygamist famous for boasting of his lifestyle on television. He won’t confirm or deny his dealings with the notorious Lafferty brothers, subjects of the best-selling book Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. His work on behalf of polygamists has earned him the admiration of those who believe in religious freedom, and the enmity of those who see polygamy as exploitative of young women and a drain on society’s resources.

But Bucher is no armchair general, he can defend himself if need be. His front teeth were the casualties of a barroom scuffle with bikers when he was younger. “There is a good reason that these teeth are missing. They were knocked out, and I haven’t had the money to replace them,” he said, pointing to a gap in his mouth.

Besides polygamists, in the past 30 years Bucher has built a law practice representing an underdogs’ gallery that includes bikers, and many clients who often can’t afford high-priced representation. Since at least half his clients are indigent, he doesn’t bother with a written fee agreement. “Now, the Bar Association hates me. You are supposed to write a contract, you are supposed to tell them how much you charge per hour. That’s impossible to do. I don’t keep track of my hours,” he said.

Bucher believes that defendants deserve a vigorous defense regardless of their ability to pay. Yet, for all his obvious idealism, Bucher professes to be apolitical. “I have no politics whatsoever. I don’t vote for any particular party.” This paradox can be explained by differentiating between his politics and his ideology. As Bucher sees it, the United States has strayed from the Founding Fathers’ emphasis on the rights of the individual. So for him, the political world today is tainted and almost irrelevant. On the other hand, Bucher is alive with the robust ideology that drives him, namely the right of an individual to be left alone by the government. Luckily for him, there is no shortage of marginalized people who encounter its heavy hand.

Bucher has no airs about him. He sees his clients at his home in the Avenues, he drinks the working man’s Bud Light, and though his parents had money, he seems quite uninterested in material possessions.

He is articulate and has a habit of closing his eyes when he concentrates. He is very astute and has enough charisma for a roomful of politicians, possessing a Clintonian charm. However, if you don’t know Bucher well, you will be taken aback by his brusqueness. He eschews formal hellos or goodbyes. He will talk for hours at great length, and as soon as the conversation ends, he will walk away.

The event that shaped Bucher’s worldview more than any other was the Vietnam war. He volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps out of high school in 1965. He was young, and thought it was the right thing to do. He clerked for a judge advocate general (JAG) unit in the States, then trained for a time in a platoon leaders’ class. He ended up leaving the service right before the 1968 Tet offensive. Then, it was on to law school at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wa. “I became convinced the war wasn’t a good war, if there is such a thing,” he said.

He also disliked the ethos of the Marine Corps. A requirement of basic training was that each Marine write a short biography. In his, Bucher called into question the legality of the war. That was a mistake. Uncertainty about the war was not tolerated. “It caused me trouble for a long time because of that. I realized very quickly how verboten it was,” Bucher said.

Vietnam taught him a lesson about politics and government. “I had no idea how crooked they could be, and how deceitful in the name of national security or in the name of the greater good … what they take as a greater good, they don’t give a shit, and they will do anything.”

Later, Bucher joined, albeit briefly, a splinter faction of the defunct Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). A student-run antiwar group, SDS achieved fame for its 1962 Port Huron Statement, a document setting forth its vision of a more progressive United States. He recalls, with some distaste, that the group wanted to parade him around Washington in his uniform as an example of someone who’d served during the war, but now rejected its aims.

His decision to specialize in criminal law was helped along when he heard activist attorney William Kunstler speak at a University of Chicago seminar. Kunstler spoke about defense strategies he used during the trial of the Chicago Seven, a group accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

“I fell in love with Kunstler, that guy had guts. He believed in the Constitution.” And Kunstler taught Bucher the tactic of allowing certain clients to speak to the press. It was a tactic Bucher would later use in representing polygamists.

“There are technical, ethical problems in allowing someone to speak to the press. But if they do it for a political reason, and they are willing to take the risk, and they see the consequences, who am I to keep them from making that statement?” Bucher asks.

Whether it’s because of his choice of clients or his personal beliefs, Bucher evokes strong feelings in people. Bill Morrison, an attorney with a criminal law and domestic relations practice who collaborated with Bucher on the Green and Swapp cases, thinks highly of him. “I’ve known John for 20 years. John is an excellent attorney, the kind you really need if you are down and out. He can grasp very complex ideas and facts in a glance and then fashion an argument almost instantaneously,” Morrison said.

Bucher works pro bono with an organization called the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), which fights the involuntary confinement and forced medication of the mentally ill in state psychiatric hospitals. (CCHR was founded in 1969 by the Church of Scientology but is not currently funded by it.) Bucher, like the CCHR, feels that many of these people aren’t a threat to anyone and that their involuntary confinement smacks of old Soviet Union tactics when communists put political prisoners and other undesirables away under the guise of mental illness. Sandra Lucas, executive director of CCHR’s Utah Chapter, found in Bucher a valuable ally and an acute legal mind.

“I work with him because, in a time and age when lawyers have a bad rap, John is one who has not sold his soul. He is a loudmouth and has no bedside manner, but he has a commitment to what makes America great,” Lucas said.

Rowenna Erickson, co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy, has a decidedly different view. A former Kingston clan plural wife, her dislike of polygamy is so intense that she could never think well of someone who represents polygamists. She witnessed Bucher in the courtroom during the Green trial and felt his performance was substandard. “I just didn’t think he was up to par. It seemed like he and [prosecutor] David [Leavitt] were playing a game,” Erickson said.

Far from being a game, Bucher estimates he’s received 50 death threats in the 30 years he has been representing polygamists. He claims to have been assaulted seven times, mostly in rural Utah. Repeated attacks on his reputation come with the job.

“You must not give a shit about personal attacks, because the government will resort to personal attacks in high-profile polygamist cases,” he said. Additionally, you must be willing to spend your own money on the costs of the case. Polygamists rarely have much money. “You must believe in it. If you don’t believe in it, you can’t do it,” he said.

Indeed, Bucher understands polygamy so well he sees its value as a pragmatic arrangement. “It makes sense in many ways as a social construct. Monogamous relationships have problems. Many of them are alleviated by a polygamous relationship. The wives become friends, they help raise the children, they help with tasks around the house. If you get your mind off the sex thing, in many ways it makes sense,” he said.

One of Bucher’s first exposures to polygamists came in 1979, when he was 33. He was brought in to consult by John Singer about an outstanding warrant issued by a juvenile court ordering Singer to appear. Before Bucher could do any substantive work on the warrant issue, the local sheriff decided to execute the warrant. A confrontation between Singer and law enforcement ended in Singer’s shooting death. Law enforcement authorities argued they tried to be reasonable with Singer. Bucher didn’t buy it. This was the heavy hand of government all over again—an echo of Vietnam.

“They plainly were there that day to end this unofficial stand off; they were plainly there to take him. I believe he was assassinated,” Bucher said.

Reflecting on his then fledgling polygamy practice, Bucher believes the law was not the hard part. It was the clients who threw him for a loop. “The law is not that complicated in the criminal sphere; you don’t have to be a rocket scientist. But dealing with everyone, including your clients, is extraordinarily complicated. And dealing with polygamists is three times that,” he said.

As famous as Singer became, Bucher didn’t come into his own until Addam Swapp, his third polygamist case. Swapp was the disgruntled son-in-law of John Singer, married to sisters Charlotte and Heidi Singer. After Singer’s death, his family had hired attorney Gerry Spence and brought a wrongful death action against the government but lost. Soon after, Swapp bombed an LDS stakehouse in Marion, near Park City. Bucher believed Swapp was making a political statement. After all, there were no fatalities. “Swapp set the bomb to go off at 3 a.m.; no one was hurt,” Bucher said.

The FBI laid siege to Swapp and some members of the Singer clan in Marion. Bucher believes the tactics used at Marion were later used at Waco against the Branch Davidians: bright lights shining onto the property, loud music and sirens to disturb the sleep of the defenders, the use of elite sniper teams and helicopters hovering overhead. The siege lasted 13 days, ending in a melee that resulted in the death of law enforcement Officer Fred House and an argument about who was responsible.

At his 1988 trial, Swapp was charged with murder under the reasoning that he set into motion events that ended in House’s death. Bucher adamantly states that Swapp did not shoot House. Bucher is also convinced that, as with Singer, the government was under enormous pressure to end the standoff one way or another. “There was too much pressure on the government to end it, so they ended it. They didn’t do enough negotiation,” Bucher said.

Swapp was ultimately convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, plus seven federal charges, including the bombing. He is serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison for the bombing and then will serve 15 years in the state prison for manslaughter in House’s death.

Bucher’s wife at the time, Jean, wrote an article about Swapp in Utah Holiday Magazine. For the cover, Swapp posed with two six-shooters. Bucher took a lot of flak, but he was merely following Kunstler’s advice about allowing certain political clients to speak to the press.

“My guy was looked upon as a freak, and there was that element to it. But there was also something he was saying, something that he was doing, and it was legitimate, and he should have the right to talk about it.” Bucher said.

After Swapp, Bucher represented a slew of other polygamists. He represented briefly Ervil LeBaron’s nephew, Ross LeBaron Jr., on a conviction he had out in California, as well as one member of the Kingston clan.

More recently, Bucher was asked to represent Brian Mitchell, better known as “Immanuel,” the man accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart. Bucher refused because, among other things, he didn’t think Immanuel truly believed in polygamy. “He claims to be a polygamist, but I am not sure about the bona fides of that claim.”

The case he will always be remembered for, though, is his 2001 representation of the famous polygamist Tom Green. Green was charged with several counts of felony bigamy, and one charge each of criminal nonsupport and felony rape stemming from his marriage to one of his wives, Linda Kunz, when she was not quite 14 years old. At the time of prosecution, Green lived with five wives and had recently appeared on television talk shows to openly defend his lifestyle. Like Swapp, Green was outspoken about his religious beliefs. He quickly became Utah’s poster boy for polygamy.

From the beginning, the odds against Bucher were enormous. A sole practitioner, he was up against the resources and manpower of Juab County prosecutor, and brother to the governor, David O. Leavitt. Besides the usual coterie of lawyers and paralegals at his service, Leavitt also hired Brigham Young University law Professor Monte Stewart as special prosecutor.

Six months into the case, Green ran out of money. But Bucher kept at it. “We probably had a total of 60 evidentiary hearings. Every week we were in court. So I maxed out my credit cards, kept borrowing on my office. I kind of went broke. It was more pressure than I have ever seen,” Bucher said.

The Green case consumed all his time, making it impossible to work on other cases that might generate income for his practice. Further complicating matters was that Bucher became close friends with Green—so close that he lost his objectivity. Bucher admitted that he made mistakes because of that. “I lost my distance,” he said.

Bucher had the trial moved from Nephi to Provo because the courthouse in Provo was more secure. In retrospect, that was an error. “They were sympathetic in Nephi. Everyone wanted me to take it to Provo but Green, and I should have kept it in Nephi,” Bucher remembers.

During trial, Bucher noticed that the docket, a chronological record of case events kept by the court, had been changed. Bucher was certain of this because he had a copy of it before and after the change was made. He made a motion requesting a hearing on the issue. At the hearing, the court reporter was gone and there was no tape recorder available. The judge claimed it was a clerical error, and Bucher claimed that since the change helped the prosecution’s case, it seemed to be evidence of malfeasance. They went around and around for a while on this issue.

“We were getting nowhere. I was repeating myself and he [the judge] was repeating himself. It was one of those conversations that you have maybe with yourself when you’ve had too much to drink or you are confused,” Bucher said.

Ultimately, Green was convicted of bigamy and rape charges. For Bucher, this was his greatest professional disappointment. “Losing the motions, not being granted an evidentiary hearing on the constitutional issues bothered me a great deal.”

In his recent appeal of the Green conviction, Bucher is among the first Utah attorneys to invoke the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down 13 state criminal laws outlawing sodomy. The high court said the basis of anti-sodomy laws was “moral disapproval” and inadequate grounds to uphold discriminatory laws that only apply to gays and lesbians. Bucher hopes to make a similar argument about polygamy: Is not discrimination against polygamists based on the same flimsy ground of “moral disapproval”?

Being so close to those who practice plural marriage gives Bucher a rare view forged by first-hand experience. There is a vast chasm, he insists, between how people perceive polygamy, and how it’s practiced.

“The most pervasive myth I have come across—what the national press was interested in without often saying it—is the sexual aspect, that there is an orgy going on. [That’s] absolutely not true in any of the cases I have ever done, or with any of the polygamists I have ever met,” Bucher said.

Then there’s the perennial charge that polygamists force women to marry them, and it’s a difficult charge to confront, especially given the recently publicized case of Mary Ann Kingston. At the age of 16, she was forced to marry her uncle, then beaten by her father when she tried to leave the arrangement and start life anew.

Bucher won’t dispute that there are sometimes abuses and unequal power relationships in polygamy. But, by way of comparison, aren’t monogamous relationships also often rife with abuse? Green was taken to court, in part, because he married his 13-year-old stepdaughter, Linda. A shocking act, to be sure, but Bucher maintains it cannot be reduced to a simple dimension. Emotional maturity, and the girl’s conscious choice, counts for something.

“It’s true that many 13-year-old girls are girls—they are children. In Linda’s particular situation, she was not. She asked him to marry her when he was married to her mother,” Bucher said.

Realistically, though, it is hard to ignore how the insular religious beliefs that constitute fundamentalist Mormonism, coupled with growing up in the physical isolation of the Green family home in San Juan county, might have influenced young Linda’s decision to marry Green. Very few 13-year-olds living in a mainstream household, attending junior high school and surrounded by friends and her mother’s copy of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women would ever consent to marry her stepfather.

Nonetheless, the rape of a child law used to prosecute polygamists draws Bucher’s ire. Currently, any adult having sex with a minor is guilty of that crime regardless of the adult’s or minor’s intent. Even if the minor intended to consent, the adult is guilty because minors are not thought to have the capacity to consent. Bucher believes there should be a consent provision written into the laws because some minors do have the capacity to consent to sex with an adult.

“All this shit has to be done in context. These statutes don’t allow the context, they are dangers, and they are overbroad and can lead to disastrous results,” Bucher said.

Most would say Bucher’s contention that some children are equipped to have sex with adults is itself disastrous. One could say that some 17- or 18-year-olds have the capacity to decide on sex with someone a few years older than they are. However, a girl of 13 is a child, and in no way prepared to grapple with the ramifications of marrying a man old enough to be her father.

The argument could be made, though, that if polygamy were legalized, or at least decriminalized, such objectionable practices might end wit plural marriage entering the mainstream. Bucher hints at that possibility. If the law recognized polygamy, the law could then regulate polygamy.

“They are secretive because they are violating the law of the land. If you would take the law [against them] away, they would be out there,” he said.

Surprisingly, Linda Green, now in her 30s, seemed nothing like the brainwashed polygamist’s wife. She was eloquent, passionate and funny. When she came by Bucher’s home to work on her husband’s appeal, she wore a long-sleeved dress that reached her ankles and was carrying a bag of donuts and thermos of Mountain Dew. Her first impression of Bucher was favorable.

“He seemed like an intellectual, someone with a lot of class,” she said.

Losing the Green case wasn’t a complete wash. Bucher and Green have an arrangement with the Utah prison system where, as long as Green doesn’t give any press conferences, he is allowed increased visitation, including visits from his other spiritual wives. Normally, prisoners are not allowed visits from women that are not legally their wives.

Bucher is taken with Green and his family. But it’s not the polygamy that wows him. It’s how close-knit they are that impresses him. “That’s meaningful to me, not the fact that he’s screwing more than one wife because, for God’s sake, there’s half this nation that is screwing out of wedlock, and no one gives a shit about it.”

As for the patriarchal nature of polygamy, Bucher has no illusions. Indeed, whether a business partnership or a monogamous marriage, Bucher believes no relationship is equal.

He is also clear that it takes a special woman to share a husband with other women. “You won’t find a girl in Brooklyn who will become a polygamist, let me tell you. You don’t talk a woman into being a polygamist wife,” he said.

Back at Tapestry Against Polygamy, Erickson finds all that wishful thinking at best, a denial of reality at worst. Polygamist marriages are rife with abuses, something she knows firsthand. “The girls cannot proceed with their schooling because that would teach them independence. Boys are sexually abused; there is battered women’s syndrome constantly,” she said.

Bucher is still coming to terms with the financial and emotional fallout caused by his representation of Tom Green. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that on the evening of April 22, 2003, Bucher, while allegedly intoxicated, had an argument with his girlfriend and allegedly shot his pistol at her, barely missing her head. Bucher told the police that he fired a gun inside his house to frighten off a car that had been outside his home.

When asked about the incident, Bucher was eager to tell his version. It wasn’t a domestic altercation that led him to fire his gun, he said. Instead, it resulted from his recent representation of a Los Angeles gang member about to testify against his own gang. Bucher had spotted members of the gang staking out his office. That night, he said he saw them cruising outside his home. “I did not come out here with my guns because I had too much to drink, so I shot in the wall. I didn’t want to kill anybody,” Bucher said.

In fact, even while discussing the event, he had no qualms about unveiling the scene of the shooting. “I’ll show you the bullet hole,” he said.

Sure enough, in his bedroom, there was a bullet hole eight or ten inches above the bed where his girlfriend had been lying. Bucher claims his girlfriend has written statements that he did not intend to shoot her.

Bucher’s explanation notwithstanding, even he would admit his nerves are a bit frayed. His profession exacts a fierce toll, and there is a price for becoming so intimately involved in his clients’ affairs. “When you get involved with them, a lot of shit rubs out on you. It’s not a pretty business.”

He readily admitted that he has struggled in the past with alcohol. “There is no other way sometimes to relieve the strain,” he said. “No one wants you to win. Sometimes your own client doesn’t. You walk in that courtroom and there may be no one rooting for you.”

In the future, Bucher doubts he ever will take on another major case like Green or Swapp. He talks about retiring to a farm he owns in the desert. “Swapp took a year and a half of my life, and Green is taking three years so far. A big prosecution demands a team and a division of labor. Trying to do it all yourself is suicide.”

He’s working toward a second wind. Intimidating barbells lie on his porch, a place where he routinely talks to clients. “I am trying to get back in shape. Oh God, it’s really hell,” he said.

And Bucher will need to undergo a personal renaissance. A self-described Hegelian, he sees world and national events as an ongoing struggle between two opposing viewpoints, with the outcome being a blend, or synthesis, of those opposing points. “The Hegelian Dialectic must have a resolution. It can’t just sit there,” he said. Those who contribute to this ongoing struggle have got to be in shape, mentally and physically.

“I am a street lawyer,” he said, defining his role in that struggle, and the close relationships he often cultivates with clients. “I deal with them, I drink beer with them, I talk to them, and I gain information from them. It’s very smart to know what’s happening on the streets, who’s running what thing. I have always been there.”

Even if Bucher eventually makes it down to his farm, his underdogs’ gallery of clients would follow him there. He wouldn’t be able to turn them down. He needs to play Hector to the government’s Achilles, the outmatched defender resisting the authoritarian tide.

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Zach Abend

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