When a story of how a pro se defendant wins something hits the stands, the groundlings rise to applaud. Proof positive that lawyers are scum, unnecessary and part of a massive conspiracy of wealth redistribution. Hah! We don’t need you.
Every once in a while, however, a story appears that tells the other side. From the NYT City Room Blog :
Every now and then we get a defendant who does not trust the system and deems himself best suited to play the role of his own lawyer in court — better suited, that is, than someone who went to law school.
One such case is playing itself out in a courtroom in Manhattan, where a man accused of killing his girlfriend in Chelsea could deliver his opening statement in his own defense as early as Monday.
As is the case in many instances in which someone goes pro se — legalese for representing yourself — this defendant, Robert Camarano, 62, seems ill suited for the job. Just ask Justice Carol Berkman, who criticized Mr. Camarano’s lawyer skills this week.
The reason it makes the papers when a pro se defendant succeeds is that it’s highly unusual, a rarity. It’s man bites dog, since dog bites man is of no interest to anyone (other than the man who got bitten and the owner of the dog that did the biting). Yet one story about the winning jail house lawyer and every Ironsides in an orange jumpsuit think’s he’s the next Cardozo.
So what did Justice Berkman have to say about Camarano?
“You don’t know how to ask a question,” Justice Berkman told him in State Supreme Court. “You don’t know how to offer things into evidence. You keep making stupid speeches. You keep saying you are good at this. You are not. I do not say this to insult you.”
It’s the stupid speeches line that gets me. Every lawyer on TV makes speeches, right in the middle of testimony, they don’t ask a question but make a speech. And they always win too, so speeches must be a really good way to win. Why don’t real lawyers know about this?
Justice Berkman was a former legal aid lawyer who became a judge before I became a lawyer. She’s seen a lot. Too much, some would say. She’s suffered through a lot of bad over the years, and her tolerance for it has waned. Some lawyers say that she’s turned mean-spirited over the years, nasty even. But even if you think she should have been more charming in her manner of informing Camarano that he was digging his own grave, the fact remains that he was and she told him so.
It’s true, as many criminal defendants complain, that there are plenty of lawyers out there who don’t care, don’t put in the time or effort necessary to do their job, or who just don’t have the ability to perform. That doesn’t mean that the pro se defendant does. If it’s hard enough to do that so many who have gone through law school and practiced law still can’t perform adequately, what makes you think you can do it better?
The trick is finding the right lawyer, not taking over the reins yourself and praying that you will be the million to one shot at winning your pro se defense. Yes, it sucks to be a criminal defendant. Don’t make it worse than it already is.