Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Defending Oneself in Court


Several sensational trials have involved defendants going pro se, in part because the publicity had so inflated their egos they felt invincible. For H.H. Holmes and Ted Bundy, that didn't take much. Tried nearly a century apart, they both decided that they were above the law, and both took on the task of their own defense. Let's examine the Holmes case first.

H.H. Holmes
H.H. Holmes

Holmes was caught in 1895 when a former cellmate informed an insurance company about a recent scam: Holmes had insured Benjamin Pitezel for $10,000 and said that he was going to fake the man's death in a laboratory explosion by substituting a cadaver. They were all supposed to split the insurance money, but Holmes had reneged. The agency checked and Holmes had indeed identified a body as Pitezal and collected the money, and had also absconded with three of Pitezal's children. The company sent the Pinkerton Detective Agency after him. Upon learning that the children had all been murdered, as had Pitezal himself, Philadelphia's detective Frank Geyer assisted with arresting Holmes (real name Herman Mudgett) in Boston. On the way back, Holmes bragged that he had done enough in his life to be hanged 12 times over.

That turned out to be true. In Chicago, investigators discovered evidence of even greater crimes. Holmes had built a three-story "castle" from money gained through murder and fraud, and cleverly offered rooms to young women arriving to attend the 1893 World's Fair. Many young women associated with him had disappeared, and he had apparently tortured and murdered them, disposing of their corpses in his special furnace. He denied his crimes, then confessed to more than 100, and finally recanted, reducing the number to 27. But in Philadelphia, he was tried only for Pietzal's murder.

Benjamin Pietzel
Benjamin Pietzel

At the trial, portrayed by Harold Schechter in Depraved, Holmes entered a request to defend himself. Judge Arnold allowed it, stating, "It is your constitutional right to try your own case." Holmes went ahead and questioned prospective jury members, at which point his team of attorneys left the courtroom. Holmes demonstrated the coolness with which he handled stress, attempting to reject each person who said he had read the papers, but the judge pointed out that he could not challenge appointments for that reason. "Newspapers are so numerous," he said, "that everybody now reads them, and of course, they obtain impressions from them."

In fact, Holmes' request to defend himself, says Schechter, was unprecedented. No accused murderer had done it before in the U.S., so a number of lawyers and law students attended. A reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer described Holmes's performance in court as vigorous and "remarkable." He was deferential to the judge but nasty to the prosecutor. He asked for an analysis of the liquid that he was accused of using as a poison for the children (which the DA did not have in his possession), and he wanted the most recent toxicology work, claiming that as a doctor, he himself could analyze it (though his credentials were false).

Yet Holmes often deflected the questioning with forays into minutia, and he frequently squabbled with the prosecutor, who was likely disturbed at having to spar in court as the defendant's equal. Holmes made an error when he requested a lunch break immediately after Pitezal's corpse was described in gruesome detail. He appeared to have no sense of sorrow over the supposed suicide of his partner and friend. For the rest of that day, while he handled his questioning in a professional manner, he failed to elicit any points to support his innocence. The professional witnesses all concluded that Pitezal could not, as Holmes claimed, have committed suicide.

The judge ordered an evening session over Holmes's protest. Holmes claimed that he was feeling ill, but it was clear that he was failing to establish his case and now had no time to prepare for a renewed go at it. The evening session opened with a surprise: Holmes asked that the court allow his two defense attorneys to re-enter the case, and relinquished his role as a criminal lawyer — the one fraudulent persona at which he had failed and the one that might have done him the most good.

Although he now had competent counsel, he had probably hurt his case. After his antics, and with his obvious fatigue by the end of the first day, the jury had a good look at the defendant's loss of confidence and inability to shake the strongest witnesses. He may not have admitted his guilt, but his actions indicated that he had admitted defeat. He got up only once to examine another witness — his latest paramour, who testified against him. Using a heavy dose of emotion, as if stricken by her betrayal, he nevertheless failed to move her to change her testimony abut his behavior on the day that Pitezel was allegedly murdered.

In the end, the jury convicted Holmes. On May 7, 1896, he went to the hangman's noose. Even there, he changed his story: He claimed to have killed only two women. In the middle of a sentence, the trapdoor opened and he was hanged.