top of page

Obituary for John Cleary

Long-time federal practitioner John Clearly has passed. Obituary below by Chuck Sevilla.

John J. Cleary (April 1, 1936 - January 31, 2020)

His energy and unbridled enthusiasm for life gave him monikers of "Machine Gun Cleary" and "The White Phosphorus Kid." He was an wonderful eccentric who lived a Spartan life and was known for his trademark Army boots that he wore both with casual clothes and in court. He was as inspiring as he was accomplished–an Army Captain and Ranger, academic, motorcyclist, outstanding defender and leader, learned in the law and languages.

John is best known in the legal community as the longtime Federal Defender in San Diego (1971-1983), President of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (1981-1982), President of the California Public Defenders Association (19791980), as the first public defender to serve on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys (1979-1985), or as President of the San Diego Criminal Defense Lawyers group (1980). He was my law partner (Cleary & Sevilla, 1984 to 2004). He was a teacher, presenter of electrifying lectures, and author of defense articles and amicus briefs. Last year, the San Diego Defender organizations named an annual award, the Conant-Cleary Award, for exceptional and unselfish devotion to protecting the rights of the indigent accused.

John’s generous nature made him way ahead of his time in giving second chances to people who had made terrible mistakes landing them in jail. While running Federal Defenders, he championed hiring people coming out of prison who had demonstrated character and skills as “jailhouse” lawyers. One of them was Benjamin Franklin Rayborn.

John could spot people of character and would trust them completely. In Ben, he saw goodness, loyalty, integrity, and legal brilliance. John tried unsuccessfully for over two years to have Ben released from prison on parole. Finally, in a unique legal action, Ben got an early release from prison on bail from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. The condition of bail was Ben’s release to the custody John J. Cleary.

John took Ben to Alcatraz, his former “home,” and interviewed him there. See “Return to the Rock: An Interview with Benjamin Franklin Rayborn,” 5 CACJ Forum (Nov/Dec 1978) pp. 15-20. As Federal Defender’s website notes, Ben was one of John great legacies and a beloved member of the office: “More knowledgeable about the law than many lawyers, Ben worked at FDSDI for over thirty years. As the chief research assistant, he participated in writing thousands of briefs. His legal education was the product of his own experiences in prison.” See

John made San Diego Federal Defenders a model for the nation and its excellent performance continues to this day. He was a great boss who respected his lawyers and staff and always had their back. John was a generous friend and mentor to countless numbers in and out of the office. John’s influence on the attorneys and staff he hired at Federal Defenders is incalculable. Most went on to excel in their careers in the law. His generosity, whether with his time, advice or finances knew no limits.

While running the office, John took a caseload like the rest of the attorneys. He often volunteered for the most difficult cases. This was leadership by example. He had many Ninth Circuit oral arguments and a half dozen cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. One of them, a most important Fourth Amendment case, forbade random law enforcement stops of vehicles. United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 (1975), successfully challenging law enforcement's use of racial profiling.

But that’s but half the story. He had an unquenchable thirst for challenges, the more difficult the better. After spending summers studying Russian at Middlebury, Vt., he moved to Russia to earn his Ph.D in 1998, with his thesis, written in Russian, on "The Russian Jury Trial: The Symbol of Troubled Judicial Reform." Thereafter, in 2004-2005, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to work in Russia as a professor at Moscow State University (MGU) and the Russian Academy of Justice where he taught Russian law students law courses in Russian.

He became an unofficial goodwill Ambassador between Russia and the U.S. by initiating law student exchanges each year. For the American students, he taught an annual intensive summer course at MGU on Russian Criminal Justice for San Diego State University. From July 2004, he began an annual summer course on the American Legal System (in English) for Russian students at San Diego State. He did this out of his pocket simply for the joy of creating communication and understanding between our peoples. Three Russian students who participated in the exchanges went on to receive master of law degrees and a number went on to became licensed attorneys in the U.S.

As a new challenge, John decided to learn Mandarin Chinese and spent three years living in China studying at Xiamen University. Thereafter, he ran exchanges between the U.S. and China on the same model he created for the Russian students. Chinese students were amazed at how this 80 year-old could master Mandarin and run the exchange programs. They made a wonderful documentary film on his work in facilitating the exchange programs titled, “Ming Datong and his Summer Program” found at

How did this extraordinary man’s journey begin? John was the proud son of an Irish Chicago cop and grew up in the rough and tumble of the Chicago streets. He got his undergraduate and legal education at Loyola University in Chicago. Afterward, from 1960-1964, in the U.S. Army he became a Ranger, served as a Judge Advocate Officer with the 101st Airborne Division (as prosecutor and defense counsel), and at the JFK Special Warfare Center. He was very proud to be the first Judge Advocate with the Green Berets. His hundreds of parachute jumps earned him a HALO certificate for jumping in “free fall” fourteen times at high altitude with low opening.

After the service, from 1964 to 1969, John worked as the Deputy Director, National Defender Project (a Ford Foundation grant program) to organize and improve defender offices in the U.S. by the creation of model defender offices. It was through this work that he helped federal defender programs became models for the spread of defender offices throughout the nation. Ironically, this funding included the office in San Diego which he would come to lead from 1971 to 1983.

John Cleary lived life to the fullest. Despite his many achievements, he was a modest man, never a self-promoter who would rest on his laurels. He rejoiced each day when he got up “sucking air.” Up to his final days, he followed a two hour exercise regimen that would intimidate men half his age. He engaged life with humor, read voraciously, traveled the world extensively, had the gift of gab with interesting opinions on everything, and possessed a lust for life to his last day.

Whether in life, law, or languages, John’s legacy of inspiration has spread over the years. He lives on in the hearts of those who knew and loved him. The world is so much the less without him. – Chuck Sevilla


bottom of page