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Betting on Yourself: the Problem of Self-Representation in Criminal Matters

Posted by Shawn B. Hamp | Aug 31, 2017 | 0 Comments

Representing yourself in a criminal matter can be a huge mistake.

Terry Harold James, 61, is a Kingman resident. He recently pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and possession of marijuana paraphernalia. That's his second case this year. A jury just convicted him of disorderly conduct with a weapon and unlawful discharge of a weapon from his first case of this year, which occurred February 5, 2017. In the first case, he represented himself; his defense was straightforward: there was a suspicious car parked near his home, but no one saw him with a gun or saw him shooting a gun, therefore, the state had no evidence against him. Unfortunately, his defense failed, and he is to be sentenced September 18, 2017, facing between 18 - 30 months in prison.

In Arizona, and elsewhere in the United States, as a suspect, you have the right to a public defender if you cannot afford to hire an attorney on your own. In Arizona, and elsewhere in the United States, you also have the right to represent yourself if you are deemed competent. The former right is out of necessity and fairness, but the second right results from insanity personal reasons. Why would anyone want to represent himself before a judge and jury? The reasons are many. Some may think they are smarter than any attorney they can hire. Others may think fighting the charge is useless because they are in fact guilty. Some believe lawyers are part of a corrupt system, and as such, are corrupt themselves. Others may truly just want their day in court and think they are their own best representative.

Whatever the reason, it is generally not a good idea to represent yourself before a judge or jury in a criminal matter. The only advantage to self-representation is what can be found in your wallet; you'll save money, but at what other costs? Those other costs can include:

  1. The Cost of Image. An attorney acts not only as your advocate, but your buffer between you and the court. An attorney represents a certain degree of professionalism that both a judge and jury respect. An attorney is skilled and experienced and knows what to say or not to say. An attorney also has some distance from the suspect and the crime, so he will refrain from getting emotional. You, as your own representative, untrained and unskilled but very connected to the outcome of the case, have a greater chance of getting emotional and blurting out something off-the-cuff that could offend the judge or jury, and that could harm your case.
  2. The Cost of Preparedness. An attorney knows how to investigate a case, interview witnesses, analyze evidence and develop a legal argument. If you, representing yourself, cannot thoroughly conduct an investigation and properly review all the evidence, then you are at serious risk of failure. In Terry James' case, he claims there was no evidence against him simply because he said there were no witnesses. But the state had evidence. James likely didn't know how to go about retrieving, interpreting, and manipulating it.
  3. The Cost of Freedom. Unless you are a trained professional, you likely are unqualified to negotiate a plea deal. A prosecutor may be happy to take advantage of the situation and offer something no criminal attorney would accept as a plea deal. Without a good argument or a good plea deal, you can find yourself behind bars longer than what would have been the case should a qualified criminal attorney represented you.

In Arizona, the laws are strict, but the penalties even more so. An experienced criminal defense attorney, like Shawn B. Hamp, is your best bet to a reduced charge or a reduced sentence.

About the Author

Shawn B. Hamp

President and lead counsel for The Hamp Law Offices, LLC (An Arizona Professional Corporation), Shawn Hamp has practiced law for more than 15 years with an emphasis in criminal law. An experienced trial attorney, Mr. Hamp has been lead counsel in hundreds of criminal trials and court...


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