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Self-Representation Is Rarely Sought, Denied

October 22, 2003|From a Times Staff Writer

John Allen Muhammad's request that he be allowed to serve as his own attorney was an uncommon legal move. But under the 6th Amendment, criminal defendants have the right to represent themselves -- a right solidified by a 1975 Supreme Court ruling that set a high bar for judges to turn down such requests.

Trial courts generally deny the right of self-representation only if a judge is convinced that a defendant will be disruptive, said James Cohen, associate professor and director of clinical education at Fordham University Law School in New York. "It is quite rare when the request is made and even rarer when it is rejected," Cohen said.

Judges look for clues in the defendant's demeanor -- prior disorderly conduct, such as giving guards or court officers a hard time, speaking out of turn or shouting in the courtroom -- Cohen added.

Virginia Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. granted Muhammad's request Monday after a 25-minute conference. In proceedings that followed over the next two days, the defendant displayed shaky courtroom acumen, delivering a meandering opening statement and befuddling witnesses with his cross-examination.

But Cohen said that a defendant's legal skill is not a primary factor in a judge's decision. What judges look for is whether a defendant is operating as a free agent and is in possession of his senses -- whether he seems normal and can understand the court's questioning.

"It is an appearance and acknowledging they understand the rights they are giving up," he said. "Whether they truly understand is a subject that the court most often is not able to figure out."

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