You’ve probably heard about people representing themselves in court. In theory this is something I’m not bothered by. Personally, I’d hire a lawyer with experience and a law degree in the same way I hire a mechanic when there’s a problem with my car – because they’re the expert and I’m not. It’s always seemed like a strange decision and more likely to end up with the result the defendant doesn’t want, but each to their own. Until very recently, this was all I had thought about the matter, I’m not sure I even consciously gave it as much thought as that.
This changed when researching a spree-killing case in the US in 2002, The Beltway Snipers. I’m not going to go into the case in detail, but if anyone is interested, there’s a fantastic podcast called Call Me God that covers it. The basics are that two men terrorised New York and surrounding areas for most of October in 2002. They killed 17 people, injured 10 others, and caused wide spread panic that caused schools to be shut down, sports games to be cancelled, and neighbourhoods to be scared for their family’s safety. The two shooters were caught and named as Lee Boyd Malvo (17) and John Allen Muhammad (41).
Malvo was a minor at the time of the arrest, and this potentially influenced some of his statements with regards to who was responsible during the crime spree – to my knowledge, it has never been fully determined who was shooting the gun in each instance, although both were very much involved. There was also a lot of debate regarding how much Muhammad had influenced and coerced him. Malvo was sentenced to life without parole.
Muhammad, however, was an adult. When it came to trial he decided to represent himself. As I said earlier, wouldn’t be my choice, but why shouldn’t he? Not all of the victims died; some were left with life-changing injuries, but survived. Several chose to testify at trial, as did the family members of those who lost their lives. They not only had to see Muhammad, but they had to talk to him, and be questioned and interrogated by him – the man responsible for shooting them or killing their wife/husband/child. Muhammad also was the one to cross-examine Malvo in the trial, the person testifying against him – a situation that seems like a conflict of interests.
But why do it? Why would someone represent themselves knowing they are likely to end up with a much harsher sentence? Perhaps they genuinely think themselves capable. The beltway Snipers left notes for the police, several of these included the phrase ‘Call me God’ which does support that idea. Before the trial started, there was a conversation between Judge Ryan and Muhammad to decide if he was fit and able to represent himself at trial. Judge Ryan made it very clear that it could be a significant disadvantage to him to do so, and really tried to dissuade him from continuing. The focus was on Muhammad and whether or not he really understood the implications and technicalities of court, and not one mention of the victims and the impact this could have on them. One of Muhammad’s reasons for representing himself was “Your Honor, I’ve learned in Virginia the more and more I would tell my lawyers to do something, they go in a totally opposite direction”. He wanted control of the situation. Link to the full transcript here.
Alternatively, they have a separate agenda. The case against John Allen Muhammad was extremely strong: the car they were arrested from had been altered to be the optimum place to fire the rifle without being seen and getaway vehicle, ballistics matched the rifle found with them to all the shootings, and Malvo testified against him. The guilty verdict seemed almost guaranteed, so perhaps the trial wasn’t about that for Muhammad, perhaps it was an opportunity for his final performance.
Muhammad was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. He was pronounced dead in November 2009, several of the families and survivors affected by his actions attended. Lee Boyd Malvo was sentenced to life without parole and is still incarcerated today.
It seems to me that those people had been through enough; not only had they been shot/lost someone, and then had to face going to court – in itself a stressful experience – they were questioned by the man most likely to have orchestrated the shootings. It seems disrespectful to those whose lives have been fractured by these events to allow Muhammad to conduct the questioning and cross-examination instead of an independent lawyer; disrespectful for him to stand up and accuse the police, forensic labs, and others of fabricating evidence and altering the weapon to prove him guilty when their family members are dead. If this were a case about tax evasion or fraud, for example, I don’t think I would have any problem with self-representation although they shouldn’t be able to question their co-conspirators as I see this as a conflict of interest, but in this instance I think it was extremely disrespectful.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.