Do-it-yourself lawyers are high-stake gamblers in court

January 24, 1995|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,Sun Staff Writer

If the man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client, then Baltimore County has more than its share of those who lack common sense.

Almost every day, do-it-yourself lawyers step in front of judges and juries to gamble with their freedom, their money or both. Prosecutors, defenders and judges say it's a quick way to come out a big loser.

Kenneth Edward Bundley learned that the hard way. Early this month, Bundley, 29, turned down the offer of a plea bargain and defended himself before a Circuit Court jury on charges that he stole a Jeep Cherokee while the owner was loading groceries into the car in a Metro Food Market parking lot.

Bundley's defense was simple: "I didn't do it," he told jurors in closing arguments. They found him guilty in less than 10 minutes.

"I didn't think that it was going to be this hard. I would have been better off with an attorney," Bundley said in an interview at the Maryland Reception Diagnostic Classification Center, where he's awaiting assignment to the prison that will be his home for the next seven years.

Bundley did start off with a court-appointed attorney, but he fired her because she wanted him to take the plea bargain. With no prepared defense, Bundley -- who has a General Equivalency Diploma and one year of community college -- squared off against against veteran prosecutor Steven I. Kroll.

He was no match.

Bundley fumbled his way through jury selection, barely laid a glove on prosecution witnesses in cross-examination and called no witnesses to support his assertion that he was home watching television when the Cherokee was snatched.

"I was scared to death the whole time, sweating and everything," he said. "I didn't know what I could say and what I couldn't say, and having to speak to these people knowing that my life was on the line and me not knowing the law."

Bundley's problems were typical. In fact, Mr. Kroll said there are two things at which amateurs fail miserably: "One, they do not know how to cross-examine witnesses. Two, they do not know how to summarize the evidence."

Bundley wants a second chance, this time with an attorney. But Maryland law gives no second chances to those take their chances without a lawyer.

As recently as 1993, the Court of Special Appeals ruled: "If an uneven 'playing field' results when parties represent themselves, it is not because the rules are applied differently, but that one side has available the education, training and experience of a lawyer who functions in the legal arena to assist and represent his client to the fullest extent of the law."

But the law does take the issue seriously. It allows people who want to represent themselves time to reconsider. Judges must inform defendants that they would be better off with an attorney. If someone needs time to get a lawyer and there has been no previous postponement, judges are required to offer one.

Attorneys say the problem often arises when defendants have frittered away their first postponement and then expect to get another so they can find an attorney. Judges frequently have little sympathy and tell the defendant to get on with the trial. And prosecutors, already annoyed by the delay, are ready to go for the jugular.

"Frankly, it is because I think these people are just lazy or overconfident. A lot of these people have been in court before. They think they can do it by themselves," said District Court Prosecutor Daniel Trimble.

"I am an experienced, trained, educated prosecutor. Certainly they are at a disadvantage. If it is a trial, they are at a great disadvantage."

John Tracy, also a District Court prosecutor, said do-it-yourselfers often leave themselves open to tactics that a defense attorney would never allow. And Mr. Tracy has no qualms about taking everything the defendant will give him.

"I will introduce hearsay evidence," said Mr. Tracy, referring to secondhand testimony. "It is only inadmissible if it is objected to."

Most lawyers know when to object. Most lay people don't, he said.

Witness trouble

Some self-representers have trouble with their own witnesses. Gerald Cifarelli's District Court debut turned into a disaster in September when he put a police officer on the stand in an effort to prove that his wife was a bigamist.

He was shocked when the officer said she'd checked the records and found that it was Mr. Cifarelli who was the bigamist. He had not completed divorce proceedings against Wife No. 1 before marrying Wife No. 2.

Even prosecutors have a few second thoughts about defendants who want to admit their guilt.

"When someone comes up to me pleading guilty, my first impression is that it is a stupid thing to do," District Court Prosecutor Lisa Fox-Dever said. "If you had an attorney, they would tell you when to be quiet and when to talk."

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