Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Defending Oneself in Court

Spotlight on the Issue

Muhammad at trial defending himself
Muhammad at trial defending himself

When his capital murder trial began in the fall of 2003, Beltway Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, who had terrorized Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., the year before, fired his lawyers and opted to defend himself. Presiding Judge Leroy F. Millette, Jr. decided that Muhammad was competent to do so, although many legal experts doubted it. Trial coverage and commentaries appeared in every major newspaper, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Like others before him, this defendant learned the limits of his abilities.

Muhammad, 42, was accused in the slaying of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, the seventh victim in the three-week shooting spree in which ten people died and three were wounded. The manhunt ended when Muhammad was found in his car with items apparently modified for sniper activity, with 17-year-old John Lee Malvo. Because he could not afford an attorney, Peter Greenspan and Jonathan Shapiro were appointed to represent him. At first he seemed satisfied, but then he demoted them to standby counsel.

In his rambling opening statement, Muhammad insisted that he was not involved in the string of shootings, and during his case presentation he urged witnesses to admit that even if they spotted him at the crime scene, they had not seen him shoot anyone, nor did they see him with a gun. He seemed to believe these admissions made his innocence obvious. But prosecutors set out to prove that the case was much more complicated than the conclusions of eyewitnesses.

It wasn't long before Muhammad apparently agreed with them and invited his legal team back into the picture. Nevertheless, with his brusque questioning of witnesses that he may have shot or shot at, he may have done his case some damage. Jury alienation can be a factor in such decisions, and they could not have been pleased with the way he badgered witnesses.  Muhammad was eventually convicted as the mastermind of the sniper murders and sentenced to die.

Judge Leroy Millette
Judge Leroy Millette

The legal doctrine of competence originated in English common law centuries ago, when defendants argued their own cases. Defendants are declared competent when they have voluntarily waived their rights and currently have no mental disease or defect prohibiting them from understanding the proceedings, the parties involved, and the consequences. Being judged competent is about having a "good understanding," but does not imply normal mental functioning. Yet given the increased sophistication of the legal process since competency was first made an issue, it would seem that allowing people to defend themselves based on mere comprehension rather than on a higher level of knowledge or ability may not necessarily be in the defendant's best interest.

Despite the platitude that anyone who serves as his own lawyer has a fool for a client, is there any clear advantage or serious disadvantage for the defendant in asserting this legal right? Some lawyers believe that the decision to waive counsel can have an adverse effect on the ability to achieve a fair trial. Many legal experts said that, standby counsel notwithstanding, Muhammad set himself up for a fall.

We'll look at other cases to see how people have fared in exercising this right, but first let's examine its origins and the ramifications of competency hearings.


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