Defending Oneself in Court
Impressing the Court
In Los Angeles during the financial boom of the 1980s, Joe Hunt persuaded a gang of former prep school chums to join him in "The Bombay Boys' Club," a commodities-trading business that was destined to make them wildly rich. All they had to do was come up with money and he would show them how to multiply it. Yet he had another twist as well, according to Sue Horton in The Billionaire Boys Club, later made into a miniseries. He used what he called "paradox" philosophy, which was a form of situational ethics: If any circumstances exist in which you'd cross a line that you claim you'd never cross, then there are no moral absolutes. Once he had the other young men convinced, he set out to involve them so deeply in the finer things of life that they'd go along with anything he did, including murder.
When a man named Ron Levin supposedly cheated Hunt in 1984 and failed to give him a promised sum of $300,000, Hunt took a bodyguard to Levin's home. He'd learned all about murder from underground manuals and had written a 14-point "to do" list to keep the plan organized. However, he forgot one thing: the list. He left it behind in Levin's home. He and the bodyguard murdered Levin and dumped the body into a canyon.
Yet Hunt still faced a huge debt, thanks to Levin's supposed betrayal, so he allegedly teamed up with Reza Eslaminia, the heir of a wealthy Iranian man, in a kidnap-for-ransom scheme against Eslaminia's father. The man died during the kidnapping, smothered in a steamer trunk, and Hunt then attempted to forge his signature to transfer his assets to Reza. Still, Dean Karny, a Club member, turned Hunt in. He was arrested, tried, and convicted of first-degree murder in 1987.
A 1992 trial brought Joe Hunt back to the courtroom to answer for his part in the kidnapping and death of Eslaminia. He made numerous petitions to the court for delays and documents, which cost the taxpayers an estimated two million dollars. Hunt claimed that he had spent nine thousand hours preparing himself for the trial. He petitioned the court for a look at documents that the CIA had removed from the home of Eslaminia, to prove there were others who wanted the Iranian man dead, but the court upheld the CIA's right to nondisclosure of sensitive material. Nevertheless, Hunt ably defended himself, charming the jury, pointing out the lack of evidence against him, and blaming the conniving Dean Karny. The jury deadlocked, and charges were eventually dropped, because Hunt was already serving a life sentence.
Willie Bosket did an even better job, as Fox Butterfield explained in All God's Children. Bosket was among one of the youngest people to defend himself in court. In and out of institutions much of his young life, he was always in trouble. Having murdered two men on the subway when he was only 15, his case was instrumental in effecting a dramatic change in New York's juvenile crime laws. Under the Juvenile Offender Act of 1978, kids as young as 13 could be transferred from Family Court and tried in the adult Supreme Court for murder.
Once he turned 16, Willie was convicted of another felony. At the sentencing hearing, Bosket requested to represent himself. The judge allowed it. Bosket insisted that as someone of "African descent," he did not recognize the court's jurisdiction over him. He then proceeded to mock the proceedings, rename himself, and accuse one of the arresting officers of having a homosexual affair with the DA. He boasted of his crimes, exaggerating them and adding crimes that he had never done. The prosecutor said, "The defendant is one of the most violent youths the criminal justice system has ever encountered."
Willie retorted that he was a mirror of white society. The judge told Bosket that he was a ticking time-bomb, sentenced him to a prison term, and tacked on an extra month for his disrespectful courtroom behavior.
The next trial was for a scuffle he had gotten into during a pretrial hearing, so he was set to take on the system. He wanted to go pro se, but the judge thought that might become grounds for an appeal — especially since this would be Bosket's third felony, which came with a life sentence. Still, he had no grounds to deny a constitutional right.
Once again, Bosket turned the proceedings into a circus, as recorded in the New York Times. He attempted to show that the American system was racist and he was a victim. He ripped up the indictment and engaged in other behaviors calculated to deflect the jury from the legal issue at hand. The trial continued for eight days, and Bosket won: the jury found him not guilty of assault.
While he avoided a third felony conviction, he nevertheless ended up with a life sentence in a future crime — stabbing a guard with a homemade knife. Nevertheless, Bosket had discovered that he could exploit his Sixth Amendment right to bend the rules and play with the proceedings in a way that no one else in court was able to do. Smart and clever, he had swung the jury his way, but in the end, the victory was hollow, for he really was the violent person that the charges against him had indicated.
Another defendant performed in court in a manner similar to Bosket's, but showed his hand too soon.