YOU CAN REPRESENT YOURSELF IN A MURDER CASE, BUT WHEN YOU DO, KNOW YOU WILL HAVE A FOOL FOR A CLIENT

It’s corny but it’s true.

I’m talking about the old saw about a lawyer representing himself in a legal proceeding. That lawyer, it is said, “has a fool for a client.” It’s nothing to laugh about and three recent murder cases, one in Brooklyn, one in Queens and one in Manhattan, all bear this out. One defendant, accused of murdering his mother and his father seven months apart, insisted on representing himself at trial. This defendant went down in flames. In Brooklyn, an itinerant garment salesman was charged with gunning down three shopkeepers. Like the man in Queens, he represented himself at trial, aided only by a “legal representative” (meaning an experienced attorney) sitting alongside him. Guess what? The man in Brooklyn went down in flames also. Most recently, a fellow named Elliot Morales also chose to be his own “lawyer” at trial in Manhattan, where he was charged with a hate crime muder. Down went Morales.

Under the law, you can represent yourself. It’s stupid but it is a legal right which judges obviously pay respect to.

My best analogy is this: let’s say you go out to Kennedy Airport for a flight to Denmark. Before you hop on the plane, the airline informs you and other passengers that the regular, duly licensed pilot did not show up for work. Instead, everyone is told, Joe who works in the fast food court and has never even been on a plane, let alone be trained to be a pilot, will jump into the captain’s seat and do his best to get you safely to Copenhagen. Would you take the risk? I know I would either switch airlines, change my flight or just go home.

Yes, you have the right to represent yourself even in such serious felony cases, where 25 years or 50 years or life imprisonment could be at stake. But, as these three cases and countless others show, you do so at your legal peril. It’s hard to beat a murder rap when you have a fool for a client.