How to Represent Yourself in Court
You say you’ve been hit with criminal charges and want to defend yourself? If so, you’re not alone. Many people seriously consider taking this path. The Sixth Amendment gives all defendants the right to avail themselves of legal counsel, and that includes the privilege of serving as your own attorney. In other words, you have the legal option of defending yourself in court, and most states will usually allow you to do it.
Of course, anyone considering such an undertaking wants to be sure of doing it right. That includes becoming familiar with the procedural rules in effect at the court in question. All courts are different in some respect, and whether you face trial in a local, county, state or federal venue, you’ll particularly want to know what you can do; what you can’t do; and how you must handle yourself.
After you’ve gotten the proper procedures under your belt, it’s on to your defense. Here are the steps you’ll be taking.
1. Your Arraignment
During this first phase of your criminal self-defense, you will hear the charges against you, learn of your constitutional rights and be given the option of entering a plea bargain. In addition, if you have spent the period prior to your arraignment within the confines of a jail cell, this will be your chance to negotiate options for bail.
Unless the case against you is hopelessly strong, declaring your innocence will be to your benefit. This will force the prosecution to prove their charges against you during trial. On the other hand, if the prosecution offers you a favorable plea bargain agreement, you may choose to enter a plea of guilty or no contest and avoid trial altogether.
2. The Discovery Process
Following your arraignment, you will enter the discovery phase during which both sides exchange pertinent information. In the interests of fairness, the prosecution must provide you with material you will need for your defense, but it is your responsibility to ask for it. You will want to obtain the names and addresses of prosecution witnesses along with copies of reports and any damaging statements you may have made either orally or in writing. You should also insist upon examining any potentially incriminating objects that the prosecutor may have in his possession.
Unfortunately, when you represent yourself, some pieces of information may lie beyond your reach. That’s because the law requires prosecutors to protect their witnesses, and this will often entail hiding their identities from anyone who might threaten or attempt to harm them. Ordinarily, the prosecution would have to release these names and addresses to a defense attorney, but since you are also the defendant in the case, it is not required to release them to you.
3. The Investigatory Phase
The documentation you have received during the discovery process will serve as the basis for the investigation that you will now have to conduct. Your main objective will be to make contact with people who can either give you the information you need or tell you where to get it. Of course, this will be much easier to do if you’ve succeeded in obtaining your release. If you are still behind bars, you may have to enlist the help of someone on the outside.
As you interview victims and witnesses, it is important not to browbeat or threaten them. They may already be frightened by the prospect of confronting a criminal defendant face to face: so much so, in fact, that in some cases, you’ll be better off hiring someone to conduct these interviews professionally.
4. Learning Your Legal Rights
It is vital to become familiar with all laws that might relate to your case. If you intend to mount a successful legal defense, you will also need to have a thorough understanding of the charges against you. This will entail locating a local law library that is open to the public. There are online websites to help you as well, and if you are still behind bars, you may be able to access your facility’s legal library if one should happen to exist. Otherwise, as a last resort, you’ll need to have someone on the outside assist you.
5. The Preliminary Hearings.
Although most misdemeanor cases will go directly to trial, the majority of felony cases will follow on the heels of at least one preliminary hearing. This hearing will allow the judge to determine whether the evidence against you is sufficient to warrant holding a court trial. There is always the chance that he will dismiss your case and release you on the spot. If this does not happen, however, the judge will now set your trial date.
6. The Plea Agreement
In the interests of avoiding a courtroom trial, the prosecution may allow you to negotiate a plea deal, offering to drop certain charges against you if you agree to plead guilty to at least one other crime. Some people are happy to get this chance, but if you believe strongly in your innocence and trust your ability to prove it, a plea deal is not likely to be in your best interests.
7. The Motions to Exclude.
During the pre-trial period, you will have a chance to request the exclusion of any evidence that appears to have been gathered in violation of your constitutional rights. This will involve filing a written motion to suppress. After reading the motion, the judge will decide whether to grant or deny your application. If the prosecution is able to convince the judge to allow a particular piece of evidence, the judge may refuse to exclude it.
8. The Trial Itself
Although this will be the last step in the self-defense process, it may be the most onerous. At the start of the proceedings, you will make an opening statement during which you state your side of the case. As the trial progresses, you will also have the opportunity to:
- Cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses.
- Present your own defense.
- Make objections when you feel the need.
- Deliver a closing statement.
During the trial, it is vital that you:
- Remain open and polite. Remember that you are the defendant in the case, and people will be watching you closely. If you lose your temper or show frustration, they’re going to notice.
- Refrain from discussing the particulars of your case with anyone else.
- Be on time or even early for all paperwork filings and court appearances.
- Be sure that you understand the legal language. If any terms seem too arcane, you may want to consider hiring a defense attorney to help you on a provisional basis.
If you have the time to conduct your own research, are not facing potentially serious penalties and feel capable of handling the situation yourself, you too can be Perry Mason for a day. Don’t treat the situation lightly though. Remember that in a criminal trial, your future is on the line. Call Weiner Law Group for a free consultation at 702-202-0500.