Monday, May 4, 2009

Heh! Oh yes he did

There is no 5th Amendment right to avoid stupidity.

Sometimes, defendants do the darndest things

Timothy Lee Williams' lawyer, Frank C. Walker II, stood next to him, powerless.

He had advised Mr. Williams not to testify, but his client didn't listen.

"All I really wanted to do was express myself," the defendant began, launching into an incoherent diatribe about his life and the circumstances surrounding a Hill District homicide.

His testimony Tuesday -- during which Mr. Williams, 40, admitted to the killing and revealed that he was a "swinger" with 17 girlfriends -- sealed his first-degree murder conviction.

Mr. Williams' testimony also is a classic example of a client who doesn't heed legal advice, say defense attorneys.

In fact, defense attorneys have plenty of war stories to share when it comes to uncooperative defendants. They agree that sometimes there's nothing an attorney can do to save a client from himself.

"You have to look past the defendant and look directly at the Constitution," Mr. Walker said. "What rights does this defendant have under the Constitution, and how do I make sure he can exercise them?"

One right that can cause conflict between lawyer and client is the right to testify. Many defendants -- especially ones who have stewed in jail for a long time -- want a chance to tell their side of the story. But from a legal perspective, it often does more harm than good.

"Very few defendants who take the stand actually help themselves," said Sumner Parker, who has worked in the Allegheny County public defender's office for 22 years.

"The lawyers have a great deal of experience trying cases. For the defendant, this is one of the few times they will ever be in a courtroom. [But] they think they have the answers."

The answers often come from "jailhouse lawyers" -- fellow inmates who advise on legal matters but don't have the training -- or family members, rather than a defendant's attorney.

The contradictory advice comes most often when an attorney is a public defender or court-appointed.

"[Defendants] view the system as being all against them and a lawyer -- defense or prosecution -- is part of the system," said John Elash, who has been court-appointed to represent numerous indigent criminal defendants.

"They don't view you as somebody who's on their side. They view you as somebody who's part of this big machine who is oppressing them."

Private clients, Mr. Elash said, can be difficult, too, but there's an easy way to silence dissent.

"I always tell people, 'If you're not going to listen to me, don't pay me money. Once you pay me money, your obligation is to do everything I tell you,' " Mr. Elash said.

Whether privately or publicly funded, attorneys can go to great lengths to develop a rapport with a difficult client.

Mr. Elash said he once went to visit a client in state prison and asked to be locked in a cell with him. He then stared down his client for 15 minutes in silence to show that he wasn't intimidated by the client's bluster.

"I'm a little bigger than most and a little crazier than most, so the physical and psychological effect of this probably wouldn't be the same for other attorneys," Mr. Elash said.

If the distrust becomes so bad that lawyer and client can't form a decent working relationship, then they part ways. Attorneys can petition to withdraw from a case or, more often, a client will elect to fire the lawyer.

Curt Kosow, the former owner of a Strip District strip club who faced tax evasion charges in federal court, was prolific in that regard. Mr. Kosow fired 11 different attorneys and finally represented himself at trial.

"[U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab] ruled he had effectively waived his right to counsel because he'd been so uncooperative with the many attorneys he'd hired and fired," said Patrick K. Nightingale, who was appointed to sit with Mr. Kosow during the trial as standby counsel to help him if needed.

Mr. Kosow's performance at his 2007 trial was, in Mr. Nightingale's words, "the weirdest thing any of us had ever seen." He introduced bizarre conspiracy theories of why the government was prosecuting him and attempted suicide before the jury convicted him of eight tax-related counts.

Mr. Williams, the homicide defendant, made it through only two lawyers. He fired veteran public defender Christopher Patarini, resulting in the appointment of Mr. Walker. Mr. Williams tried to fire Mr. Walker mid-trial, but Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Randal B. Todd wouldn't allow it.

Mr. Walker's defense rested on the fact that Mr. Williams' girlfriend had been cheating on him with the victim, 30-year-old Kenneth Woods. Mr. Walker argued that it was a passion killing and asked for a voluntary manslaughter verdict.

Standing before Judge Todd in the nonjury proceeding, Mr. Williams swiftly torpedoed Mr. Walker's argument by saying the girlfriend meant little to him because they were in an open relationship. He said he knew about several more homicides, but he would never snitch. He said he wrote raps and poetry and he had been close to signing a $1 million contract before his arrest.

And Mr. Williams admitted to the killing but said police "sabotaged" a surveillance video that captured the shooting.

Assistant District Attorney Rob Schupansky, who could barely contain his glee, was brief in his cross-examination.

"Did you shoot Kenneth Woods on the 16th of June, 2008?"

"Yes," Mr. Williams replied.

After Judge Todd delivered the first-degree murder verdict, Mr. Williams piped up, insisting that his counsel was ineffective.

"I think if I assigned you Johnnie Cochran, you would still be dissatisfied," Judge Todd said, referring to the lawyer who represented O.J. Simpson in a double homicide trial. "You insisted, against [Mr. Walker's] advise, to testify and that hurt your case quite a bit, do you understand that?"

Mr. Williams replied, "Yes, I do."