Lawrence S. Huffman: Self-representation in court gone wrong

By Lawrence S. Huffman - Guest Columnist

About five years ago, long after my service as prosecuting attorney had ended, I received a notice from the Common Pleas Court summoning me for jury duty in a criminal case. What to do? I was entitled to an exemption from jury duty by reason of age, and I was sure that the court would sustain a challenge for cause by the defense lawyer. I decided not to claim the exemption, so I appeared with the other prospective jurors just to see what would happen.

The presiding judge was one of my former assistants, the Honorable Richard K. Warren, and the trial prosecutor was my former assistant, the late Dan Berry. The defendant was present but without a lawyer. The judge instructed us that the defendant had disdained a lawyer and would represent himself. Under those circumstances, the prosecutor asked the jurors very few questions and the defendant, representing himself, waived any questions to the prospective jurors. If he had discovered my former position, any lawyer would have immediately challenged me for cause, and the court would have excused me. Thus, I found myself one of the jurors.

The evidence was that the unemployed defendant had been living with a young lady in her shabbily furnished apartment for several months. She returned from her night shift job early one morning to find that it had been totally refurnished with brand new furniture. She was totally surprised and questioned the defendant as to where it had come from. He told her that she was a good person, that he had wanted to do something for her and had bought the furniture for her as a surprise.

However, a day or two later, she saw an item in the newspaper that there had been a burglary at a furniture warehouse on Elida Road. It didn’t take her long to figure out that she was living in an apartment full of stolen furniture. Thinking of the consequences, she called the sheriff’s office while her boyfriend was out. They immediately recognized the furniture as matching that on the stolen property list of the recent burglary of the Elida Road warehouse. To all of this, the young lady testified. She was rather irate because to move the stolen furniture in, he had thrown out her old shabby stuff, and the sheriff had taken the new furniture as evidence.

The boyfriend was well known to the officers and had been recently released on parole from the penitentiary for burglary. In his defense, the defendant claimed that he was not guilty, that his girlfriend had been complaining about how shabby her apartment was, and she had enlisted him to aid her in the burglary. He testified that he had done so, but that she was the “brains” of the crime.

Berry cross-examined him and, of course, took issue with the defendant’s version of the crime and put his credibility as a witness in question by forcing him to admit that he had two previous convictions for burglary and larceny and then administered the coup de gras by asking him, “If she was the instigator, participated in the burglary and was enjoying its fruits, why would she call the police to come and get the stolen property?”

To which the defendant said, “I take the Fifth Amendment.” He offered no other evidence. Berry made a very brief closing argument, and the defendant made his closing argument berating the sheriff’s department, accusing the girlfriend of being the mastermind, proclaiming his innocence and saying that immediately after the furniture was installed in her apartment, he moved out.

After the court’s charge, which always instructs the jury to elect a foreman who will lead their discussion and present the verdict to the court, our deliberations were brief. I knew several of the jurors personally, and they elected me foreman. My first direction was to ask each of them to take a sheet from their notepad, write guilty or not guilty on it, fold it, and return it to me. It took about thirty seconds for everyone to vote “guilty.”

I thought we should at least all say something, so I went around and asked all of them individually what was the most convincing element of the prosecutor’s case. Each one said, “Why would she call the sheriff to get involved in a burglary and larceny she was guilty of?”

There were also some comments about the depth of the defendant’s intellectual prowess. We all signed the verdict, reported to Judge Warren, and went about our business as citizens do.

Moral of the story: He who represents himself has a fool for a client.

By Lawrence S. Huffman

Guest Columnist

Lawrence S. Huffman is an attorney in Lima and a guest columnist in The Lima News.

Lawrence S. Huffman is an attorney in Lima and a guest columnist in The Lima News.

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