LARGO — Daniel Richards, on trial in the murder of his 83-year-old mother, began his own criminal defense on Tuesday by asking a few questions to the pool of prospective jurors.
"If you were accused of killing your mother, would you want to represent yourself or do you think you could trust an outsider to do that for you?" he asked.
A few hands went up.
Richards, a 61-year-old with shaggy gray hair and a beard, also asked if anyone thought he looked like Charles Manson. Several more hands shot up.
"I grow my hair like this because it’s the only thing that grows in jail."
Typically, it would be a defense attorney who would conduct jury selection, present evidence, and question witnesses in a trial on behalf of their client.
But Richards waived his right to an attorney and has chosen to represent himself. His second-degree murder trial began Tuesday. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison.
In his orange jail scrubs, Richards sat alone at the defense table, his handwritten pages neatly stacked in front of him as Assistant State Attorney Rachel Colquhoune presented the case against him.
On the night of July 17, 2016, Richards went out with a friend to the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa. He had a lot to drink, Colquhoune said, and his friend called a cab to take him home to 1737 Linwood Circle in Clearwater, where he lived with his mother, Catherine.
About 10 a.m. the next day, Richards called 911 and told responding paramedics his mother fell.
"They saw the victim laying in a pool of blood, with injuries all over her body and glass broken everywhere," she said.
Clearwater police also responded, and Richards stuck with his story: His mother had simply fallen in the kitchen. But with the extent of her injuries, including several rib fractures, punctured lungs, brain trauma, detectives began to investigate and set up a recorded phone call between Richards and the friend he had seen the day before.
During the call, Richards changed his story: Catherine lunged at him with a knife or pot.
He shoved her to the ground and stomped on her, he said in the call. Jurors will get to hear the conversation during the trial this week.
After she died in late August, an autopsy concluded that Catherine died from blunt force trauma, Colquhoune said. The manner of death: homicide.
Prosecutors also told the jury that another Pinellas jail inmate who chatted with Richards will also testify.
"He will tell you most importantly, that the defendant admitted to him there never was a knife, that he made that up," Colquhoune said. "He made that up because he knew he needed a defense and he thought that sounded good."
During his opening statement, Richards didn’t explain how his mother was hurt, but instead told the jury about her descent into dementia.
She was unhealthy, smoking about $300 worth of cigarettes a month, Richards said. In recent years, he watched her slowly become paranoid, even of a close friend who lived nearby. She stopped doing crossword puzzles and watching game shows. Catherine only wanted to smoke.
"I took care of my mother for a very long time," he said.
Although uncommon for defendants in high-stakes trials like murder cases to waive their rights to an attorney, it does happen occasionally. In 2015, a doctor charged with running a pill mill operation served as her own counsel. She was ultimately convicted and is now in prison.
Richards’ trial resumes today.
Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.