An Accused Murderer Represented Himself. Good Idea?

Minutes ago, 42 year old Michel Escoto was convicted of murdering his wife.  It took twelve years from the vicious beating to today’s first degree murder conviction.  Jurors took just 2 1/2 hours to convict Escoto, who committed the murder to collect on a $1 million life insurance policy.  The trial took a month and was anything but typical.

As has been repeatedly reported, this defendant believed it was in his best interest to act as his own attorney.  The Constitution does give him the right to have a fool for a client.  The question is, “Was this a smart move?”

The obvious answer is, “Hell no!  Look at the outcome.”  Even ignoring the guilty verdict for one moment, it still was dooms day from the start for this convicted murderer.  I must concede that it was theoretically possible that this guy, who never attended law school and had never handled a traffic ticket for himself or anyone else, could have pulled off an acquittal.  I’ll grant him that generic possibility.  In reality, however, his chances of winning, from the start, were always so low, so remote, approaching almost no real value.

Trial work is an art form.  Effective cross examination is a unique skill cultivated over years of practice.  This defendant was misled by his ego that erroneously told him that he was his best choice for lead attorney.  I told one local reporter that I would tell this now convicted defendant, “Your ego is not your amigo.”

I’m not suggesting that having a skilled and experienced attorney will ensure an acquittal.  Candidly, I think some cases are losers for the defense, unless David Copperfield is on retainer and can make overwhelming evidence disappear.  However, in this case, a veteran attorney was appointed on behalf of this now convicted murderer and he played a minor role, at the request of the defendant.  The skilled attorney should have been cross examining witnesses instead of the defendant.

At one point, the defendant was held in contempt by the judge and then ordered to serve 30 days in jail.  The problem with that is that jurors saw Escoto act up in court and anger the only person they trust in that the courtroom, the judge.  Avoiding conflicts with the judge that may give the impression that the judge favors the other side is something that trial lawyers learn early on in their career.  Escoto, having never litigated a day in his life, wouldn’t have learned that critical lesson.

The clear takeaway from this trial is that one should never represent themselves in a criminal case, especially when the charge is as serious as this one.  If Ted Bundy were still around, he’d surely agree with me.