The Perils of Going to Court Without an Attorney
Being charged with a criminal offense can be frightening experience. You are facing charges punishable by a permanent criminal record,
jail time, and an unfavorable outcome can have lifelong consequences.
Representing yourself without an attorney is called going "pro se" or latin for "on one's own behalf." Those that do so choose to completely represent themselves in front of the judge and district attorney in and out of court. They have to read and understand the accusatory instrument filed against them, review discovery paperwork which includes complaint and arrest reports, file suppression motions, and prepare for suppression hearings and trial without a lawyer. Judges hold pro se defendants to the same standard as an experienced attorney so if a
pro se defendant fogets to file a motion by the deadline or forgets to make an objection, his or her right to do so could be lost forever.
Some defendants disregard this advice and go pro se. The
1993 Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) massacre is perhaps the most infamous example of a NYC defendant who elected to go
pro se. In 1993, Colin Ferguson murdered 6 people and injured 19 others on the LIRR in Garden City, New York. Colin Ferguson was born in Jamaica in 1958. When he was 20 years old he lost his father in a car crash and his mother to cancer. When he later moved to the US he was troubled by personal problems and became increasing frustrated with the lack of job opportunities available to him. That frustration culminated in 1993 when he decided to purchase a gun and open fire at random on the LIRR emptying two 15 round magazines. For three minutes he randomly shot and killed 6 people and injured 19 others. Prior to his trial, he agreed to be represented by two prominent attorneys, William Kunstler and Ron Kuby. They proposed an innovative defense that Ferguson had been driven to temporary insanity by a psychiatric condition and therefore could not be held criminally liable for his actions even though he had committed the killings. Ferguson, however, claimed that he was not insane, rejected his lawyers' proposed defense, and decided to go
pro se. One of Ferguson's attorneys commented that
"Without a psychiatric defense, Ferguson has no defense…What we will have now is a complete circus." In 1995 he was convicted of murdering 6 people and attempting to murder 19 others.
He is currently serving a sentence of 315 years to life.
What the LIRR massacre illustrates is that understanding and knowing how to use various criminal law concepts, such as the burden of proof, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and the rules of evidence is not easy. Here is an outline of a few concepts:
- Burden of proof is the obligation of one party to prove its allegations at trial. In criminal law, anyone charged with a crime is presumed to be innocent. Therefore, the burden of proving a defendant guilty rests with the prosecution to prove all of the elements of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the legal standard of evidence that is required in order to convict you in criminal court. Juries and judges are instructed to apply this legal standard in determining your guilt or innocence. It means that the facts being presented to the trier of fact by the government (the prosecution) must be proven to such an extent that there is no reasonable doubt in the mind of a reasonable person that you are guilty of the charges alleged. To combat this, defense attorneys call cross examine eyewitnesses and police officers, present evidence, and call their own witnesses.
- In any court proceeding in the New York, there are certain rules of evidence that have to be followed by attorneys on both sides. For example, there are rules as to what is relevant evidence in a criminal trial, rules on using out of court statements called "hearsay" statements, authenticity of exhibits and pieces of evidence, and so on. If you choose to go pro se, you'll have to learn these rules as well.
A criminal conviction will result in a permanent record with the possibility of jail or prison time. Some people choose to represent themselves for reasons such as it is cost effective, they weren't happy with their prior lawyer, or they think it won't matter. Unfortunately, it often does matter. Under the 6th Amendment, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." It grants you the right to an attorney in any criminal case. You shouldn't waive that right because quite simply, representing yourself may prevent you from achieving the best possible outcome on your case.