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Being your own lawyer: bad idea. People in Tampa Bay do it anyway.

By Laura C. Morel, Times Staff Writer
Published: December 15, 2017 Updated: December 17, 2017 at 07:08 PM
Daniel Edward Richards, 61, of Clearwater, confirms his intention to continue representing himself before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger on Tuesday. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

LARGO — Daniel Richards walked into the courtroom in his orange jail scrubs. Carrying a stack of papers, he stood in front of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger as she glanced at the handwritten documents he filed days earlier.

"I foresee foul play at several different levels, your Honor," he wrote in one motion asking for a "court-ordered investigation" into his case.

After denying this and several other of his requests, Helinger had an important question for him: Did Richards, on trial last week in the fatal beating of his 83-year-old mother, still wish to represent himself?

Richards, a 61-year-old high school graduate with no legal experience, said yes.

He is the latest example in Tampa Bay of a rarely used constitutional right for criminal defendants: acting as your own attorney.

Moments before jury selection was to begin, Richards had a question about his arraignment.

"I can’t explain the law to you," Helinger told him. "That’s what your lawyer would do."

• • •

It’s a right that defendants are advised of as soon as they’re arrested: You’re entitled to an attorney.

But in a 1975 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they can also refuse counsel. In legal terms, it’s called pro se, which means "for oneself" in Latin.

"That’s really their life that’s on the line," said Charles Rose, a professor at Stetson University College of Law. "If that’s the way they want to deal with it, then they should be entitled to do that."

Judges ask defendants a series of questions to make sure they understand the rights they’re giving up. Do you understand that a lawyer is versed in court procedures? That they can question witnesses, present evidence, and make objections on their behalf?

"Most people have no idea the amount of work that goes into a case," said Kenneth Nunn, a University of Florida law professor. "The odds are that a person who is pro se is going to just wing it."

If the defendant’s competence in understanding this decision is in question, the judge can also order a psychological evaluation.

Reasons to self-represent vary. Sometimes, it comes down to a defendant disagreeing with their lawyer’s defense strategy. Often, their decision is based on mistrust if they’ve previously been accused of a crime.

"Most of them have been in the system a bunch of times and it hasn’t worked out for them," said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip Federico, who has presided over at least 15 pro se cases.

Other times, the reason is simple.

"People are just foolish," said Rose, "and they don’t know what they don’t know."

• • •

Lawyers agree that representing yourself, especially without any legal experience, is a bad move.

"The process within the court is really tangled and bogged down because you’re dealing with people who don’t understand what the procedures are," Nunn said.

Judges can appoint standby counsel that the defendant can consult with during the trial.

Richards’ standby lawyer was Assistant Public Defender Adrian Burden. But he never asked for her help.

During jury selection, he told the nearly 60 potential jurors that he was "very new at this." A defense lawyer would typically spend more than an hour asking questions to gauge jurors’ beliefs and opinions. Instead, Richards asked: Do you like pets? Do you think I look like Charles Manson? Do you hate my hair?

On the second day of his trial, he declined to have standby counsel.

"The judge is the person who has to deal with this," said Rose. "The judge pays more attention to everything that’s said by the defendant because there’s no other check on it and that can be frustrating for the judge."

It also presents other challenges in the courtroom. How much security does a defendant require? Can they cross-examine the victim?

"You have to be hypervigilant with a pro se defendant," Federico said.

In recent years, other criminal defendants have chosen to be their own lawyers at trial. Most end in convictions.

In 2015, a doctor charged with running a pill mill operation served as her own counsel.

It didn’t go well: She’s now in prison.

More successful — in a way— was Craig Wall, who murdered his girlfriend and their infant son in 2010. He represented himself, asked for the death penalty, and got it.

• • •

The trial came to a halt Wednesday when prosecutors noticed copies of an interview transcript handed to the jury mentioned Richards’ criminal record.

One by one, Helinger asked each of them if they had read ahead to Page 43. Only one, an alternate juror, said yes. The judge asked Richards if he wanted to kick her off the panel.

"Too much happened today," he said, shaking his head. "I’m not thinking straight."

After he eventually decided to have the alternate dismissed, Helinger told the court they’d send the jury home early so they could fix the transcripts.

She asked Richards if he understood what was happening.

"I do this time!" he said, laughing. "Good for me."

On Friday, the jury found Richards guilty. His sentence: life in prison.

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.