Faced with a capital murder trial, you would think any defendant would want a trained and experienced defence lawyer to represent them. In the following cases, however, these killers decided they would defend themselves in criminal court despite no training or real understanding of the legal rules and procedures that could save their lives. Some chose to do this because they genuinely thought they were better than any defence lawyer and could talk themselves out of the charges against them. Others couldn’t resist the attention and spotlight they knew representing themselves would provide, a last chance to gain the notoriety they craved before they were caged behind bars for the rest of their lives or put to death for their crimes.
“A defendant who represents himself cannot thereafter complain that the quality of his defense denied him effective assistance of counsel.”
Under the Sixth Amendment, all defendants have the right to a defence either by hired lawyers or lawyers appointed to them. Under the same rules, all defendants have the right to represent themselves as long as the judge is satisfied that they are fully aware and competent to make that decision. In cases where a defendant has known mental health problems, the US Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that while they may be deemed fit to stand trial, their mental health means they cannot represent themselves in court.
In most cases where a defendant does choose to defend themselves they have a ‘standby counsel’, a defence lawyer present in the court with them to offer advice during the trial proceedings, however, they do not have to listen to this counsel and it must be made clear at all times to the jury that the defendant has control over the defence case and they are representing themselves.
The horrifying factor when killers represent themselves at trial is that it means they can call any surviving victims, their victims’ family members and witnesses to their crimes to the stand and cross-examine them. They can listen to their accounts and then pick apart their testimony, questioning and challenging them directly. This, for victims and family members, is beyond comprehension and must be a harrowing and sickening ordeal to have to go through.
For all four of these killers, their decision to represent themselves ended badly and none won their cases. All were found guilty of murder and were sentenced to life prison terms or to death row with only their thoughts, and regrets, for company.
In October 1995 Waseem Daker stabbed 30-year-old Delta flight attendant Karmen Smith to death after stalking her roommate, Lottie Spencer, for months. He also stabbed 5-year-old Nick Smith up to 18 times during the attack which he miraculously survived. Unable to link Daker forensically to the murder at that time, he was initially charged and convicted of stalking Lottie Spencer and given 10 years in prison.
With advanced DNA testing, a strand of hair found on Karmen Smith’s body was matched to Waseem Daker and in 2012 he went on trial for her murder and the attempted murder of her son. Daker chose to represent himself, calling both Lottie Spencer and Nick Smith to the witness stand and making them relive the attacks. “I did not kill Karmen Smith, and I did not stab Nick Smith,” he told the court. After a two week trial, the jury returned a guilty verdict and Waseem Daker was sentenced to life in prison with an additional 47 years.
On 7 December 1993, 36-year-old Colin Ferguson boarded a Long Island Rail Road train at Penn Station in New York. As the train packed with commuters making their way home from work headed towards Hicksville, Ferguson took out a 9mm handgun and began walking through the aisles shooting everyone he saw. He was tackled by passengers when he stopped to reload his gun ending his killing spree. Six people had been killed and a further 19 were injured. Ferguson was arrested and claimed he was not responsible for the shootings, insisting the police had got the wrong man. He chose to represent himself at his trial, refusing to allow his court-appointed attorney to mount an insanity defence for him. After hiring two attorneys to represent him claiming racial issues had caused him to kill, he fired them and took over his own defence.
At his trial in January 1995, Ferguson claimed somebody else had stolen his gun and begun firing while he was asleep on the train. He referred to himself in the third person and advised the court the charges against him were a ‘racist conspiracy’. He questioned his own victims who bravely faced him down telling him “I saw you shooting everyone on the train”. After weeks of increasing bizarre behaviour from Colin Ferguson, the jury returned a guilty verdict on multiple counts of murder, attempted murder and weapons possession.
“Colin Ferguson, in my almost 21 years on the bench, I have never presided over a trial with a more selfish and self centered defendant,” the judge told him before sentencing him to six consecutive life sentences and additional 25-year sentences for each of the nineteen counts of attempted murder.
Nidal Malik Hasan
On 5 November 2009, Nidal Malik Hasan a US Army psychiatrist based at Fort Hood opened fire at the base, killing 13 people and seriously wounding a further 32. He was shot by police on the day of the attack causing him paralysis from the waist down. 42-year-old Hasan decided to represent himself at his trial in August 2013. He did not call any witnesses, barely questioned the testimony of the witnesses of the prosecution and did not display any of the theatrics during the course of his trial often shown by other defendants who choose to represent themselves.
He simply told the court that during the war in Afghanistan he had ‘switched sides’ and he carried out the shootings in defence of the Taliban. A military trial, he was not allowed to enter a guilty plea but it is believed Hasan purposely made little effort in his own defence as he wanted to be convicted and be given the death penalty where once he was executed he would become a martyr. On 23 August 2013, Hasan was found guilty of multiple murder and attempted murder and was sentenced to death five days later. He was taken to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas where he now sits on military death row awaiting his fate.
John Allen Muhammad
Nicknamed ‘The Beltway Sniper’ 48-year-old John Allen Muhammad and his accomplice, 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, carried out a number of random sniper shootings in Washington in October 2002, killing 10 people and wounding three others. Muhammad had altered the boot of his car to accommodate a small hatch for a sniper rifle that could not be seen. Once caught, Muhammad and Malvo had separate trials and Muhammad was considered the mastermind behind the shootings. As the shootings crossed different states, Muhammad was first tried in Virginia in 2003 for the murder of Dean Harold Meyers and then tried in Maryland in 2006 for a further six murders.
In both trials, Muhammad demanded to represent himself. He spent his time in court ranting, shouting and claiming he had been framed by the police. The DNA and ballistic evidence against him he said had been planted. “They are just nothing but hackers. They just happen to work for the FBI or the CIA,” he said. Muhammad cross-examined his younger partner in crime on the stand calling him a liar about the details of the attacks and how they had been planned. “You took me into your house and you made me a monster,” Malvo told him.
John Allen Muhammad was found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of Dean Harold Meyers in Virginia and convicted of six counts of first-degree murder for the Maryland shootings. Upon his conviction in Maryland in 2006, Muhammed was returned to Virginia’s death row where he remained until 10 November 2009 when he was executed by lethal injection.