His clients read like a laundry list of bad guys: Child killer Mark Anthony Ott, now in prison for life without parole. Murderer William Andrews, executed in 1992 for the notorious "Hi-Fi" torture-murders that rocked Ogden in 1974. Rapist and killer Doug Lovell, now on death row, whose victim was never found in the wilderness where her body supposedly was abandoned.

The life of a defense attorney, especially one skilled at handling death penalty cases, revolves around the seamy side of humanity. And yet cheery, bearded John Caine, who pokes fun at his ample waistline, can fetch smiles from jurors even during the grimmest trials.

How can such a nice guy defend people who commit such repulsive crimes?

"I have to ask myself, 'Why am I doing this?' I'm 57. I came out of the '60s — the whole experience. I chose this," Caine said recently in his Ogden office.

"I was the kind of guy who wanted to go out and right the wrongs. I felt people were being treated unfairly, that the government wasn't always right. Bob Dylan songs were my anthems."

His philosophy is simple. "People aren't born bad — some individuals do very bad things and commit unspeakable acts. I have to look at it and try to understand him. That doesn't mean I agree with him or that I do anything improper, but he's a human being," Caine said. "I have to get in his skin."

Caine was hired right out of the University of Utah law school by veteran attorney Maurice Richards, now 84, and was assigned almost immediately to defend Andrews, a young black Air Force helicopter mechanic facing a possible death penalty for his role in the Hi-Fi case.

The crimes shocked the community and highlighted the racial divides in Utah. Mounting a defense for Andrews was a huge assignment for a lawyer so young and inexperienced. Richards, however, was convinced Caine could do it.

"He was just damned good," Richards said. "He's a very intelligent guy. He's got a memory for everything that you just can't believe. Ask him who Lincoln's undersecretary of war was and he could tell you who it was."

Caine, who has a private practice but contracts for public-defense work, has improved with age and experience, Richards said. "He's probably the best criminal attorney in the West. He has no peers."

In his 33-year career, Caine has handled 60-70 murder cases. Two were sent to death row — Andrews, who was executed, and Lovell, whose appeal is pending.

"When you have a death penalty case," Caine said, "you do anything to get the death penalty off the table."

Lovell was convicted of raping Joyce Yost and later killing her to stop her from testifying against him in the rape trial. Prosecutors asked Lovell's wife to visit prison wearing a wire. Lovell was recorded bragging about committing the perfect crime.

An unusual plea bargain then emerged. Caine and prosecutors worked out an understanding that gave Lovell a chance — but Caine insists there were no guarantees — of escaping the death penalty if Lovell confessed and helped officials find her body.

Yost's body, however, could not be found, despite extensive searches of the canyon Lovell described.

Lovell now wants to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming he would never have gone through with a plea bargain that included the death penalty as an option.

Caine won an acquittal in another emotional and highly publicized case, that of Jeri Daines, the South Weber woman charged with murdering 3-month-old Clancy Petersen, who she was tending in her home day-care center.

It was a risky case with a jury. Jurists often want to make someone pay for the death of a child. The prosecutor, who during the trial held up the baby's blood-streaked pajamas, argued that a stressed-out Daines, who had more rambunctious kids underfoot than her license allowed, violently shook the infant.

Caine argued that three pre-school boys at the day-care could have roughhoused with Clancy to the point they ended up accidentally killing him.

A visibly stunned Daines wept after the verdict, which declared her not guilty. "That case I'm very proud of," Caine said. "Jeri Daines wasn't just not guilty, she was innocent."

Although he'll fight for his clients, Caine is generally cordial with the lawyers for the other side. "There are some great prosecutors," Caine said. "One is (Weber County deputy attorney) Bill Daines, my arch-adversary for 30 years. We ask each other, 'What will happen when we both go?' It won't be any fun anymore.

"You get sideways with a prosecutor a lot, and it is an adversarial system, but I've tried to develop good relationships," Caine said. "They'll beat the snot out of you if they can, but they're honest, and they fight fair."

Caine is known for a folksy style that often endears him to juries. During opening arguments in one case, he took off his shoes and put them on the podium as he asked the jury to walk in his client's shoes.

But don't think Caine is nothing but theatrics and flourishes, according to retired 3rd District Judge Pat Brian, who spent 20 years as a judge and 20 years more as a state and federal prosecutor.

"John Caine is a very capable trial lawyer. He takes a keen interest in the legal problems his client has and is very aggressive in defending his client, both factually and legally," Brian said. "If you asked me how I would rate him, I'd say he's a very, very good defense attorney."

Caine also has enjoyed good relationships with clerks, secretaries and other courthouse workers.

A few lawyers are condescending to court staffers, but Caine treats them with respect, said Pam Allen, deputy court clerk for 2nd District Judge Brent West. "When you hear John's on a case, you know it's going to go well because he doesn't do all the lawyer jockeying that some lawyers do," Allen said. "He doesn't do things to make himself look good, he represents his clients well."

Weber County Sheriff's Lt. Art Haney, who has arrested a lot of the people Caine has defended, said Caine is professional and friendly even when things don't go his way.

"If his client is found guilty," he said, "he doesn't jump up and down and yell that you've trumped up charges against his client."

Although Caine typically has positive relationships with judges, on rare occasions that hasn't been the case. Maurice Richards recalls one early episode. "The problem was up in Brigham City with (1st District Judge) VeNoy Christoffersen. At 4 p.m., the judge calls me on the phone and says, 'Bud, what have you sent me up here?' I said, 'What do you mean, Judge?' "

It turns out Caine got riled when the judge kept overruling his objections and, at one point, Caine stood up, shoved a bunch of books to the floor and tipped over the podium, spilling its contents.

"I said, 'What are you calling me for? Did you put him in jail for contempt?' " Richards said. "The judge said, 'In the course of tipping the podium over, he dropped his glasses and stepped on them, and he's blinder than a bat. He can't drive to Ogden.' The judge was mad on the phone, but when I got there he was laughing."

Caine shrugs sheepishly when reminded of this tale: "I was young and reckless."

Caine grew up in Ogden, the son of a civil servant and a homemaker. A couple of teachers steered him into debate, and he worked in high school and at Utah State University as a radio disc jockey.

After graduating with a degree in history, he attended the University of Utah College of Law. During the Vietnam War era, he served in the reserves and worked as a military lawyer in the JAG office at Hill Air Force Base, a job he said he enjoyed immensely. He's been married to Sally Caine for 31 years, and they have five children and two grandchildren.

A self-professed "great believer in the system," even when he disagrees with the courts, Caine takes in stride the contempt many have for defense lawyers.

"Some people think we all crawled out from under a rock. I think a lot of the misconceptions come from people not understanding what our role is, and a lot of that comes from the entertainment media.

"You're simply saying, 'Here's how the system works.' Everybody has a role. If there's no defense attorney, who's going to test the evidence? I don't see that as a loophole — I see that as protecting constitutional rights."

E-mail: lindat@desnews.com