Every defendant has the right to an attorney. If a person cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for them by the state. But not everyone wants to cede control of their fate to an attorney.
Instead, these people exercise their right to defend themselves in court. But is that a smart thing to do? Certainly, any trial lawyer will tell you it’s not but trial lawyers have a vested interest in people using their services.
Is it Ever Advisable to Defend Yourself?
A quick look at high profile criminal cases where defendants represented themselves would suggest that perhaps trial lawyers are right:
- Colin Ferguson was charged with killing six people and wounding many others on a commuter train in 1996 and waived his right to an attorney. The visual of survivors pointing at him and saying “I saw you shoot me” was not good for his case and he was convicted of all six murders and received six life sentences.
- Ted Bundy, a former law student who many people considered extremely bright and personable, decided to represent himself on charges of murdering two college students. He put on quite a show but was ultimately convicted of both murders and eventually executed.
- Charles Manson also decided to represent himself in court for orchestrating the 1969 murder of actress Sharon Tate. It didn’t go so well and he died in prison in 2017.
There are a number of reasons why representing oneself in a criminal proceeding is a bad idea. Here are the most often cited ones:
- Your emotions may interfere – The stress of representing yourself and the emotions in play may cloud your judgment and interfere with your ability to mount a rational defense.
- You may make incriminating statements – It’s very possible that while trying to defend yourself you may let slip an opinion or something from your past that casts you in a bad light.
- You’re likely to make procedural errors – There are well-established procedures that govern criminal trials and the judge isn’t going to cut you slack because you’re not aware of them.
- You’re on your own – If you become confused by a point of law or are unsure how best to proceed, no one is going to help you. Not the judge and certainly not the prosecutor.
So, getting back to the original question of whether it’s ever advisable to represent yourself – the answer is “no”. At least not in a major criminal case. There’s simply too much on the line. On the other hand, you may be able to defend yourself successfully in small claims court or civil court where the stakes are not as high and the pressure not as great.
Can You Hire a Lawyer to Help?
You can, and if you decide to represent yourself, you probably should. Hiring a lawyer as a consultant should improve your chances considerably.
But it’s still likely you will make errors in judgment, presentation or law that will undermine your case.