The Defendant in the Trayvon Martin Murder Case Has a Constitutional Right to Defend Himself

January 25, 2013

Friday, January 25, 2013.

I believe there is a good possibility that the defendant in the Trayvon Martin murder case is extremely unhappy with his lawyers. I think he expected his case would be over by now and he would be a free man awash in millions of dollars from civil suits against his accusers and set for a life of leisure. Give what some lawyers said about his case, one can understand why he might have felt that way.

I disagreed with their opinions, but I may have been in the minority at that time — before Angela Corey charged the defendant with murder in the second degree. The subsequent release of evidence has confirmed my initial opinion and I suspect most lawyers now agree that the defendant has little chance to prevail.

Nevertheless, he had high expectations when he selected Mark O’Mara to represent him and his case has gone downhill ever since. He has only himself to blame for that. Basically, he could not keep his mouth shut and every time he opened it, he said something that hurt his case.

He appears to believe that he can outsmart anyone and lie his way out of any trouble. While that might have worked for him in the past, it’s certainly not working for him now. To put it crudely, he’s pissing with big dogs now and failing to impress.

He does not seem to be the sort of person who would admit mistakes and accept responsibility for their consequences. Instead, I suspect he blames his lawyers for his present circumstances.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s article, What Happens if the Defendant Claims Indigence and his Lawyers Ask to Withdraw? his lawyers could attempt to withdraw or he can attempt to fire them and replace them with a new team, assuming he has the money to do so. If he does not, he could plead poverty and ask the court to find him indigent and appoint new counsel.

He has a big problem, however. He might be able to change the lawyers, but he cannot change the facts.

In situations like this, I have occasionally seen a defendant insist on representing himself

In Faretta vs. California, 422 U.S. 806, 806 (1975), the SCOTUS held:

The Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of our Constitution guarantee that a person brought to trial in any state or federal court must be afforded the right to the assistance of counsel before he can be validly convicted and punished by imprisonment. This clear constitutional rule has emerged from a series of cases decided here over the last 50 years.[1] The question before us now is whether a defendant in a state criminal trial has a constitutional right to proceed without counsel when he voluntarily and intelligently elects to do so. Stated another way, the question is whether a State may constitutionally hale a person into its criminal courts and there force a lawyer upon him, even when he insists that he wants to conduct his own defense. It is not an easy question, but we have concluded that a State may not constitutionally do so.

This defendant would be ill advised to represent himself because he has demonstrated that he is not very smart and he does not know the law.

Can a defendant who lacks intelligence and does not know the law and the rules of evidence “voluntarily and intelligently” elect to waive his Sixth Amendment right to counsel and represent himself?

Justice Potter Stewart, who wrote the majority opinion, answered that question:

It is undeniable that in most criminal prosecutions defendants could better defend with counsel’s guidance than by their own unskilled efforts. But where the defendant will not voluntarily accept representation by counsel, the potential advantage of a lawyer’s training and experience can be realized, if at all, only imperfectly. To force a lawyer on a defendant can only lead him to believe that the law contrives against him. Moreover, it is not inconceivable that in some rare instances, the defendant might in fact present his case more effectively by conducting his own defense. Personal liberties are not rooted in the law of averages. The right to defend is personal. The defendant, and not his lawyer or the State, will bear the personal consequences of a conviction. It is the defendant, therefore, who must be free personally to decide whether in his particular case counsel is to his advantage. And although he may conduct his own defense ultimately to his own detriment, his choice must be honored out of “that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law.” Illinois v. Allen, 397 U. S. 337, 350-351 (BRENNAN, J., concurring).[46]

Faretta, at 834.


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