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Jeffrey Toobin: Self-representation almost always disastrous

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin

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Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad is defending himself, a strategy that legal experts say most often results in conviction. CNN's Jeffrey Toobin reports. (October 21)
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On the Scene
Jeffrey Toobin
John Allen Muhammad
Lee Boyd Malvo

(CNN) -- Sniper shootings suspect John Allen Muhammad made a surprise request Monday to represent himself at trial. The judge in the case agreed to Muhammad's request and announced that defense lawyers would only be assisting him.

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin spoke with CNN anchor Daryn Kagan about the wisdom of acting as your own lawyer. Muhammad is on trial in the slaying of Dean Harold Meyers, who was gunned down outside a northern Virginia gas station last October.

KAGAN: This is a head scratcher. This guy is playing with life and death.

TOOBIN: He certainly is, and what is a little puzzling about this is that the judge agreed so quickly to let him represent himself, because of the magnitude of the decision, because as you say, it is life or death.

Oftentimes what happens when a defendant tries to represent himself is that the judge demands a psychiatric examination, he demands that he talk more with his lawyers.

If you recall, Zacharias Moussaoui, the man accused in the 9/11 attacks, he has tried to represent himself, and the judge went to great lengths to make sure that is a knowing and intelligent decision. Here, it seems like the judge pretty much just let him go.

KAGAN: And from what we know about John Allen Muhammad, there is nothing in his past that even seems to suggest that he is fit to represent anybody in a death penalty case.

TOOBIN: Right, and the old saying is, "any lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client," and I guess that goes double when you're not even a lawyer in the first place.

It is almost always a disastrous decision for a criminal defendant to represent himself. However, it is often a decision that creates a good deal of chaos and imposes unusual obligations on the prosecution. It's not something prosecutors like very much, but it certainly is not a recipe for winning either the guilt phase or the penalty phase for Muhammad.

KAGAN: What does it mean that his lawyers are going to be on standby?

TOOBIN: Well, they can give him advice, and that's often how it works, certainly in a death penalty case with a defendant who represents himself. These are lawyers who are literally standing by to answer questions, to give advice, to help the defendant try the case, but it is a big difference.

They are not the lawyers. They generally don't get up and talk in court. If John Muhammad is the lawyer, then he is the lawyer, and it is almost invariably a terrible decision for a defendant to make.

KAGAN: I'm just trying to picture what this is going to look like in the courtroom. For instance, Lee Boyd Malvo, the teenage suspect, he is being brought into the courtroom. You are going to have John Allen Muhammad standing up, perhaps referring to him, witnesses will be at the stand. He will be allowed to question the witnesses.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. Though I can't imagine that Lee Malvo will testify. He may be brought into court to be identified, because you have a Fifth Amendment right not to testify, but you don't have a Fifth Amendment right not to show your face.

John Muhammad will be examining all these witnesses and that's a recipe for chaos. It's also a recipe for some very emotionally difficult moments perhaps, if there are witnesses who are associated with the victims, to have to be cross-examined by the man that they and many other people believe killed these victims, it is an ugly and unpleasant possibility.

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