Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2010
Profiles in the Law
Playing His Part:
Markku Sario Finds a Stage in Law and Performing Arts
By Melody Finnemore

Melody Finnemore

Markku Sario remembers sailing into New York Harbor on the Queen Elizabeth on Memorial Day 1950. His family had just completed the voyage from their home in Helsinki, Finland, so his father could work as a visiting mathematics professor at MIT. It was Sario’s sixth birthday.

“Flags were flying and people were waving and there were parades. It was wonderful. My dad told me it was all for me,” he says, joking about his childhood gullibility.

Now the public defender for Grant County, Sario’s life — both personal and professional — has been a series of unique adventures. His father, Leo, was a renowned mathematician who taught at Harvard and Stanford before working at Princeton University’s Institute of Advanced Study with Albert Einstein. The “itinerant mathematician,” as Sario calls him, finished out his teaching career at UCLA.

“My dad was knighted by the Finnish government, but unfortunately the title is not inherited,” Sario says.

As a teenager, Sario often spent summers camping with his family in California’s Kings Canyon National Park. His enjoyment there led him to earn his bachelor’s degree in forest management from Oregon State University.

Sario was a forester with Weyerhaeuser in Klamath Falls for 12 years, and the company put him through law school at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. He became a member of the Washington State Bar Association in 1982.

“Unfortunately, I graduated just in time for the bottom to fall out of the forest products industry,” he says, adding the company laid him off along with about 3,000 other employees from its headquarters in Federal Way, Wash.

With few job prospects in environmental law as a newly graduated attorney with little experience, Sario opened his own office in Tacoma and began practicing criminal law.

“I found out that, strangely enough, I liked it. To me, it’s a lot more enjoyable than civil law where you’re shoving paper back and forth across your desk and the cases never end,” he says. “Criminal law has a definite beginning and a definite end.”

After five years of private practice in Tacoma, Sario wanted to return to the open space he had come to love as a forester in Oregon. In 1987, he passed the Oregon bar exam and became a deputy district attorney in Bend. Then, in 1990, he transferred to the D.A.’s office in Klamath Falls, where he was the felony drug deputy D.A. for five years.

Sario was an instructor at the Fall Institute for Prosecutors at Portland’s Marylhurst University in 1992, a position sponsored by the Oregon District Attorney’s Association. He also served on the OSB Uniform Criminal Jury Instructions committee for three years. In 1997, he joined Klamath Defender Services as a contract attorney and, in 2000, became Grant County’s public defender. He works from an office in Canyon City.

Burns attorney John Lamborn, who holds the indigent defense contract for Harney County, often works closely with Sario. The two share cases if one or the other has a conflict, and they occasionally have served as co-counsel with one another.

“Markku has forgotten more law than I’ll ever know,” Lamborn says. “He is, in my view, just a wealth of information. He’s very calm, cool and collected, and as professional as the day is long.”

Sario, who has received a Certificate of Appreciation and a Public Service Award from the Oregon State Bar, says his cases over the years have ranged from loud noise complaints and DUIIs to sex offenses and capital murder cases.

His most memorable case to date was his defense of Jessie Bratcher, the first Iraq war veteran in the state — and one of the first in the nation — to successfully claim post-traumatic stress disorder as a criminal defense.

When a jury found Bratcher guilty of murder but insane because of PTSD in October 2009, it was a watershed verdict on several levels. For decades, most criminal defense attorneys completely avoided introducing PTSD as an explanation for why a client with wartime experience may have acted violently toward others or engaged in other illegal activities.

Sario, who says he grew very close to Bratcher while serving as his lawyer, admits the case carried a steep learning curve.

“I guess what surprised me most during the Bratcher trial was learning how prevalent PTSD is in this war. I had always had the idea that out of one hundred people in combat, there might be one or two who had significant psychological problems,” he says, noting estimates now are that as many as 30 percent of Iraq war vets return with combat-related mental issues.

“There are some 300,000 veterans with PTSD now, and there are a lot more coming,” Sario says, adding two of his witnesses — Bratcher’s squad leader and platoon sergeant — also have PTSD.

Sario’s efforts to have Bratcher transferred from the Oregon State Hospital to a treatment program in Los Angeles that specializes in PTSD ended earlier this year when, due to apparent internal politics, the L.A. program declined to accept Bratcher.

“The biggest problem at the Oregon State Hospital is that there is no program specific for treatment of PTSD. Yes, they have group sessions… but there is no rigorous treatment for people with PTSD,” Sario says.

He fears for the tsunami of Iraq and Afghanistan war vets with PTSD who will not be able to find effective treatment programs when they come home. Because of the lack of proper treatment for veterans in the criminal justice system, Sario has added his support to the Bunker Project, a movement to start an in-patient secure treatment program for Oregon veterans.

Sario himself is a veteran of the U.S. Army. He served in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., from 1963 to 1966 and applied to serve in the Special Forces. Though he passed the test, he wasn’t able to obtain the required interim security clearance because he was born in Finland.

Instead, Sario joined a troop entertainment show and played the piano at military bases throughout the South.

“We had some shows in big auditoriums, but I remember at least one show we did on an outdoor basketball court to an audience of 18 airmen at a missile site in Florida,” he says. “It was a great experience, and certainly beat being sent to Vietnam.”

Just two months after he left the 101st, half of the division was sent to Vietnam. Many of them didn’t come back.

Sario had his own brush with death in 2001, when he fell asleep at the wheel, crashed his car and shattered his spine. Until that point, he had been a skydiving instructor after learning to jump from planes during his Army stint and as a smoke jumper for a couple of summers.

The car accident also ended Sario’s efforts to establish a community theater in Canyon City. A longtime community theater actor, director and piano player, Sario has been involved in more than 50 productions and met Jackie, his wife of 17 years, through community theater.

Among Sario’s favorite productions is “Quilters,” a musical about pioneer women who helped settle the West. Sario also enjoyed acting in the two-man drama, “Sleuth.”

“That was very disturbing because the part I always played goes insane during the play and kills the other guy, so I usually came offstage in a semi-suicidal state. It generally took a couple of hours for me to return to myself,” Sario says, although he admits, “My experience in these productions was the best training I could have had for the best theater of all: criminal trials.”

While he no longer is involved in community theater because of time constraints, Sario plays piano for a local choir in Canyon City, and he enjoys woodworking in his rare free time.

The father of three adult children, Sario increasingly finds himself serving as a mentor on how to best serve clients with PTSD. He recently spoke on the issue at the request of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, and he receives calls from other attorneys looking for guidance.

“Attorneys don’t always understand how to deal with these kinds of cases because it’s a new area of the law, so they are wondering what to do, how to find the appropriate experts and things like that,” he says.

As Sario nears his third decade of legal practice, he says he appreciates the opportunity to directly impact people’s lives as a criminal defense attorney.

“Frankly, I think criminal law is the most important area of law because it’s where we get this tension between the rights of the state to investigate and prevent crime and the rights of the individual to be free of government interference,” Sario says.

“Obviously, the state has more power than individuals do, so it’s very easy for people to get steamrolled by the system unless there’s an attorney there to make sure the state plays by the rules,” he says. “Successfully protecting individual rights — that’s what gives me the most satisfaction.”

Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2010 Melody Finnemore

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