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Pro-Se: Understanding Legal Self-Defense

Can you successfully defend yourself without counsel in court?

Defendants who represent themselves in a court of law are pro se. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to refuse counsel and represent themselves in criminal and civil proceedings. It is also the Court's duty to determine if an individual is capable of representing themselves by assessing the individual's lucidity and mental status.

But is competence to stand trial the same level of competency necessary to mount a successful pro se defense?

What if the defendant lacks legal knowledge? Is there any mechanism to help them learn what is necessary to prepare a viable case?

There have been many criminal cases where the defendants have represented themselves and they have all had dismal endings.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian was convicted in 1999 of second-degree murder in the death of a patient; Colin Ferguson, convicted in the 1993 shootings on a New York commuter train that killed six people and wounded nineteen: Ted Bundy was convicted of killing sorority sisters in Florida. His narcissism, need for control and belief that no one was as good as he cost him his life. He was executed in 1989: John Allen Muhammed, the D.C. Sniper, killed ten people. His said nothing about the shooting and was executed in 2009.

Our legal system is a bifurcated all-or-nothing model of representation. There are no alternative forms to pro-se or by counsel. Pro se is not a strong option given the dearth of knowledge, experience and background in law (litigation) that defendant’s lack. People without lawyers are mistreated in the American legal system.

Given the cases mentioned, it appears accepting counsel would have been a better choice. So in reality there is actually only one choice.

Each of the defendants lacked specific legal knowledge to help them navigate the legal system. They made arguments that were not based on law because they didn’t have the necessary knowledge.

The reality is that even the most mundane legal matters can require multiple complex maneuvering. Education would increase the knowledge base for pro se defendants. A litigant in total ignorance won’t be successful.

But, pro se litigants can be taught through classroom instruction or video conferencing to arm them with general knowledge of the relevant substantive, procedural law and preparation of standardized legal documents leading a pro se litigant to adequately represent themselves.

Self-representation with education raises the level of the playing field.

More from Susan J. Lewis Ph.D., J.D.
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