Defending Oneself in Court
The Snake's Day in Court
In August 1986, the boss of New York's Colombo family, Carmine "Junior" Persico, also known as "The Snake", was granted the right to defend himself in a major Mafia trial. The case was covered by several reporters for the New York Times. Persico insisted that he knew the case as well as any lawyer. The judge conducted a Faretta hearing and asked him about his prior experience with the judiciary system. Persico had been in prison for most of the past 14 years on a variety of charges, so he told the judge that he had "quite a bit of experience with the federal government." Because he only had a high-school education, the judge stressed the difficulties of defending the case, as it involved nine defendants charged with "running a commission to control the Mafia." Persico wanted to proceed, so his attorney, Frank Lopez, was assigned as standby counsel.
At Persico's request, Lopez was replaced by Stanley Meyer, although Persico made it clear who would be running the show. "I am only having a lawyer sit by me," he told the judge, "because you directed me to have a lawyer sit by me. I am trying to follow your rules, or else I would sit there alone, too."
In the courtroom, he affected a likeable, friendly attitude with the jury, reminding them that he was not a lawyer but a defendant. He joked about being "a little nervous" and warned them not to be "blinded by labels" such as "the Mafia" and "La Cosa Nostra." When Persico had a chance to cross-examine Fred DeChristopher (his cousin's husband), the informant who had turned him in, he caused a stir in the courtroom by accusing DeChristopher of making up lies to get the $50,000 reward. DeChristopher denied it, precipitating several angry exchanges between the two men.
When Persico summed up his defense in a closing argument, he once again urged the jury to "put aside any preconceptions or prejudices you might have about the Mafia." He attacked DeChristopher's character by referring to testimony that directly contradicted his, and also insisted that there was no direct evidence for the charges.
Despite his charming manner, Persico was found guilty and sentenced to 100 years in jail. Whether he had actually helped himself by taking on his own case is debatable. His personal jabs at the key witness against him may have annoyed the jury — and the same questions coming from an attorney could possibly have been asked with better effect. Even defendants who are knowledgeable and prepared may fail to make their case well enough for an acquittal. Let's look at a case from civil court.