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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Muhammad's Request to Represent Self Granted Unusually Quickly

Aired October 20, 2003 - 11:03   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's bring in our legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin with more on this. Jeffrey, this is a head scratcher. I mean this guy is playing with life and death.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: He certainly is. And what's a little puzzling about it 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 the judge demands a psychiatric examination, he demands that he talk more with his lawyers.

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

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

TOOBIN: Right. I mean 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 penalty phase for Muhammad.

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

TOOBIN: Well, there they can give him advice. And that's often how it works. Certainly in a death penalty case, with what's called a pro-se client, a client who -- 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's a big difference. They're not the lawyers. They generally don't get up and talk in court. If John Muhammad's the lawyer, he's the lawyer. And it is almost invariably a terrible decision for a defendant to do. KAGAN: And just real quickly, 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's being brought into the courtroom. You're going to have John Allen Muhammad standing up, perhaps referring to him, witnesses will be on the stand. He, this man who is accused of killing all these people will be allowed to question the witnesses?

TOOBIN: Absolutely. Now, I can't imagine Lee Malvo is going to testify. He may in 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.

But 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 victims who are -- if there are witnesses associated with the victims to have to be cross-examined by the man that they and many other people believe killed these victims.

It's an ugly and unpleasant possibility.

KAGAN: Absolutely fascinating development out of Virginia Beach. Jeff, thank you for that. You'll be tracking it along with us, I'm sure.

TOOBIN: All righty.

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