Criminal defendants always have the right to defend themselves in the court, that is guaranteed under the Constitution. However, before you decide to represent yourself in court, you should always ask yourself these questions:
- Do I know enough of the law?
- Do have I have the time apart from work and family?
- Do have I have the money to hire a lawyer?
- What are the consequences if I lost?
The most important is the last question. Anyone can defend themselves if the outcome of the trial is a fine. But if the the consequence is the loss of freedom, then you should reconsider defending yourself in court.
Why Some Defendants Want to Represent Themselves
Defendants may choose to represent themselves for a variety of reasons:
- The consequence of the trial is not very severe
- Private attorneys can be very expensive and beyond what the defendants can afford
- The defendant is a lawyer or have acquired enough legal training to represent him/herself adequately
- The defendant is bound by the ethical rules an attorney must follow, allowing them to disregard filling rules and other court procedures which may prove to be advantageous
- a death-row inmate literately suspended his death sentence by representing himself and then filing appeals arguing that he was not qualified to so and thus should have never been allowed to represent himself in the first place. By doing so, he dragged out the death-row appeal process until his state repealed the death sentence. He’s currently the only former death-row prisoner to do so.
- The self-representing defendant will be granted privileges, such as access to the prison library, that he/she would not have access to otherwise.
Choosing to Represent Yourself
There’s a popular saying in the the legal profession regarding people representing themselves: “one who chooses to represent himself has a fool for a client.” Indeed, one of the core advantages of having a private attorney is that the attorney could see and judge the case without the influence of emotions and prejudices that one faces when presenting oneself. In addition, legal representation is a full time job in a complex and ever changing profession that requires knowledge, education and experience. Not everyone is cut out for it. Before you decide to be your own attorney, you must make sure that you are prepared to spend the necessary time and effort, and not to mention, prepare for the consequences if you fail. These consequences can be dire and devastating. For example, if a private attorney makes a glaring mistake and you were found guilty as a result of it, you can appeal your court decision based on the inadequate legal assistance of your attorney. However, if you represent yourself, you will not be able to do so because you are not a lawyer and thus not held up to such standards that would allow you to appeal your case. Further more, it’s okay to represent oneself if the punishment for doing a bad job is nothing but a fine or lose of certain privileges. But there are times when the likely punishment is severe, like years behind bars. Thus if you are going to represent yourself, you best find out what the likely punishments are if you are to fail.
Find Out the Likely Punishment
It is difficult to find out the standard sentencing rules, even for seasoned attorneys. This is because the trial judge has discretion in deciding how long to sentence someone. (Sentencing in federal court is a big exception, though judges aren’t bound by those guidelines.)
However, some states do have what are called determinate sentencing laws. These laws provide specific sentences (or a range of sentences) for each crime — for example, 4 years for burglary and 2 years for larceny. Many statutes allow the judge to add or subtract a year or two from the sentence, these are called mitigating or aggravating circumstances.
Other states have indeterminate sentencing laws, which allow the judge to sentence an offender for a period of time between a minimum sentence and a maximum sentence — for instance, ten years to life. The prisoner will probably be eligible for parole after serving the minimum sentence, but only if a parole board agrees to the release.
If a defendant wants to find out what the punishment is likely to be if convicted, the defendant might take the following steps:
- Pay a private defense attorney who handles cases in that court for an hour of consultation. An experienced defense attorney can often make accurate predictions as to likely punishment.
- Ask a relative or close friend who is an attorney for informal, unpaid advice.
- Talk to an attorney from the public defender’s office.
- Talk to a relative or close friend who is a judge for informal, unpaid advice.
Representing Yourself at the Arraignment
In most criminal courts, the arraignment is where the defendant first appears before a judge and enters a plea of guilty or not guilty to the offense charged. Assuming the defendant plans to enter a plea of not guilty, which almost every defendant does at this early stage, the court will then:
- set a date for the next procedural event in the case
- consider any bail requests the defendant or the prosecutor makes (usually if the defendant is at liberty — not in jail — at the arraignment, the defendant will continue at liberty without a change in bail status)
- appoint a lawyer for the defendant upon the defendant’s request and a showing of eligibility, and
- ask the defendant (or the defendant’s lawyer) to “waive time” (that is, give up the defendant’s right to have the trial or other statutory proceedings, such as bail/bond hearing, voir dire, or sentencing, occur within specified periods of time).
Most people can handle an arraignment without a lawyer. However, if the defendant can get the court to appoint a lawyer for him or her without having to delay the arraignment, or the defendant is able to arrange for private representation before the arraignment, having a lawyer at this stage is always better. This is because the arraignment is the first court appearance in court for the defendant, it’s the first impression he/she will have on both the judge and prosecutor. Although not much will be discussed at the arraignment, it sets the tone for the rest of the trial. In addition, by having an attorney at arraignment, the defendant can ensure that the attorney have ample time to prepare for the trial and get his/her hands on vital information, all of which will be beneficial to the criminal defendant.