Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Defending Oneself in Court

The Debate

Kenneth Starr
Kenneth Starr

Adina Matusow, writing for the Legal Times, quoted Former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, best known for his role in the impeachment proceedings against former President Clinton, when Starr took on a case where he argued against the Faretta ruling. Starr believed that judges should "in appropriate circumstances insist that a defendant proceed with the assistance of counsel." He insisted that the risks involved in a pro se defense could undermine confidence in the U.S. criminal justice system, and believed that the courts have too readily allowed defendants to waive their right to counsel. Some people may say they understand the proceedings, but when the case begins, they make errors, become aggressive, or fail to understand how to use witnesses to their advantage. However, a panel of judges indicated that while courts should take precautions to ensure that a defendant is aware of the risks, they are not responsible for how he or she fares.

Tom Metzger was a white supremacist from Fallbrook, CA and a role model for hate groups. When he went to trial, he had substantial backing and resources. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), before starting White Aryan Resistance (WAR), which published and promoted anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant propaganda, Metzger had been involved in groups such as the KKK. He had also started an Aryan youth outreach program to align his group with the Neo-Nazi skinheads, placing his son John in charge of the alliance.

Tom Metzger in court
Tom Metzger in court

On November 12, 1988, a group of skinheads attacked three Ethiopian immigrants in Portland, Oregon, killing one of them, 27-year-old Mulugetha Seraw. A letter linked Metzger to the attacks, and when one of his followers agreed to testify, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ADL took Metzger and his son to civil court in 1990 on behalf of the Seraw family.

Metzger asked to defend himself and his son. According to the ADL Law Enforcement Agency Resource Network, Metzger did not go it alone. He received legal advice from his own sources, as well as aid from the Portland Branch of the ACLU, which prepared a trial brief pro bono, stating that Metzger's "negligent and reckless speech... while recruiting for their organization is protected under the Oregon and U.S. constitutions." Metzger made a motion to dismiss the charges, but the motion was denied. At trial's end, the jury decided on behalf of the Seraw family and ordered Tom Metzger, John Metzger, and the War organization to pay a total of $11.5 million in damages.

Tom Metzger
Tom Metzger

Nevertheless, prosecutor Morris Dees noted that Metzger had been more than adequate for the task. "I don't think the result would have been any different if he had an attorney," he commented in the National Law Journal. "Tom Metzger is the most effective advocate of his position." In the same publication, retired attorney David Goldstein claimed that "Mr. Metzger's performance was worthy of the top five percent of trial lawyers."

Metzger's own analysis was that the judge, an African American, had made a number of significant legal errors. He appealed the case, but the verdict was upheld. Metzger then filed a malicious prosecution suit against Dees, which was dismissed, and a suit against the representative of the Seraw estate, which he later withdrew.

While legal minds wrestle over the fine points of this constitutional right, and even the best prepared may fail, some trials have given people the chance to see a celebrity criminal in action — contributing to his own downfall.

 

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