Representing Yourself Rarely Works

By deciding to represent himself in his capital murder trial, accused Beltway Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad faces a tough fight. Several other high-profile defendants have tried the same tactic in the past, and they've all lost.

"A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client," an old adage says. If so, a list of recent fools includes admitted Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski (search), patient-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian and, most spectacularly, Long Island Rail Road gunman Colin Ferguson (search). All are currently behind bars.

Fox News senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano described Muhammad, whose trial began Monday in Virginia, as a "dope" for deciding to represent himself. Muhammad's two court-appointed lawyers will be kept as stand-by counsel.

"No judge does this willingly," Napolitano said. "The judge really has to bend over backwards to make sure both sides get a fair trial, otherwise the conviction could be meaningless."

Among those accused of terror-related crimes, at least two are going the self-defense route.

So-called "20th Hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui (search), accused of aiding and abetting the Sept. 11 attackers, has been acting as his own attorney. Former University of South Florida professor Sami al-Arian (search), accused of raising money for a Palestinian terrorist group, is trying to get the right to do so. Both men are currently awaiting trial.

Since Kaczynski cut a last-minute deal to avoid trial, and an almost certain death sentence, in exchange for life without parole, Colin Ferguson's trial remains the best example of a self-representing defendant who fails.

Before his trial, Ferguson fired famed lawyers William Kunstler and Ronald Kuby, who had been pushing for an insanity defense based on "black rage." His own defense strategy was simpler: He was innocent, and the dozens of people who in December 1993 saw him shoot and kill six fellow train riders, and wound 19 others, had the wrong man.

When Ferguson asked witnesses during cross-examination to identify the gunman, several pointed directly at him. Ferguson retorted that another, unnamed African-American man — one he happened to share an address with — had in fact committed the shooting, and that he himself had been aboard the train but asleep.

In February 1995, Ferguson was sentenced to 200 years in prison.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian (search), Detroit's famed "Dr. Death," had twice avoided conviction for assisting terminally ill people to commit suicide. In 1998, for his third trial, this time for an assisted suicide that was televised on "60 Minutes," he chose not to use skilled attorney Geoffrey Feiger and decided instead to represent himself.

Kevorkian lost and was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison.

Other famous defendants who considered representing themselves include convicted Philadelphia cop killer and leftist cause célèbre Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose request to act as his own attorney was denied. Homicidal cult leader Charles Manson, who admitted he was "not an attorney," instead selected one he himself regarded as incompetent.

Several common threads link all these men. By most accounts, they are highly intelligent and self-confident to the point of delusion.

Most past defendants have also used the courtroom as a megaphone for their own ideas and beliefs, something for which the role of defense attorney provides almost unlimited opportunity.

On Monday, Muhammad used his opening arguments to discuss "three truths: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" and he drew analogies about his daughter eating chocolate-chip cookies.

Legal analysts said that whatever Muhammad does during the trial, he could be setting up a natural appeal should he be convicted. The appeal would be based on the fact he had incompetent counsel.

"If this is some type of a ploy, he might not be such a dope,"  Napolitano said.