4 Non-Lawyers Who Actually Successfully Represented Themselves in Court
It’s an idea you might be familiar with from a climactic moment in a TV show or movie. Our misunderstood and misapprehended protagonist, fed up with a flawed system, decides to opt out of it entirely. They tell their cut-rate, crooked lawyer to hit the road, and dramatically inform the judge and jury that they will, in fact, be representing themselves. Then, usually through the power of unimpeachable justice and a jury that nods more enthusiastically with their every word, they emerge triumphant. The prosecution team can’t believe some rube, some plebe, managed to trounce them, and they scurry, sniveling, back to their white-shoe law firm.
In reality, defending yourself in court, even when your life might not be on the line, is a patently horrible idea. If you’re raising your eyebrows, no need to check the byline, this isn’t a guest column from some attorney named Lawson Gavelmeyer, Esq. Trust me, I wish it wasn’t as necessary as you do, but the fact is that our legal system, quelle fucking surprise, has a lot of rules. Ones that a trained prosecution will understand so well you’d think they’d passed some sort of exam on them. Rules that they will not hesitate to constantly call you on. Even in a case you know you’re going to lose, a lawyer might be able to argue for shorter sentencing.
Once in a very rare while, though, it does work out, like it did for these four famous self-defendants.
We’ll start with a case that one man without legal training was, alone, able to take all the way to the Supreme Court. This was the case of Kolender v. Lawson. Edward Lawson was a Black man living in San Francisco in the 1970s. This, by which I mean inside the United States, was not a great place to be a Black person in the 1970s. As you might imagine, Lawson experienced a fair amount of harassment from police, specifically being arrested 15 times within two years for refusing to identify himself while walking around the city at night. What an unimaginable, unfamiliar abuse of power! Thank god we’ve advanced!
The arrests were made using an old vagrancy law, which basically allowed the police to demand “credible and reliable identification” of anyone who was loitering. Now if you think the idea of what’s credible and reliable isn’t clear, especially when tied to the famously amorphous crime of “loitering,” you’re starting to see the problem. The police basically had carte blanche on going “Hey! Loiterer! Who are you?” and then, if they thought you were lying: jail. Lawson sued the police department, defended himself, and court after court agreed that no one could tell exactly what this fucking law meant (I’m paraphrasing).
It eventually went to the Supreme Court, where Lawson finally got an ACLU lawyer after being told he wouldn’t be allowed to represent himself, and won. The Supreme Court ruled that the law violated the right to due process because nobody could figure out how not to break it, or as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “The void-for-vagueness doctrine requires that a penal statute define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
And there, thank god, ended the existence of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement by American police!
The idea of a mobster in court is also a pretty straightforward one in most of pop culture: a stone-silent, but still powerful presence guarded by a cadre of the best lawyers they can afford. There might not be anybody who takes the right to remain silent more seriously, letting highly trained professionals poke holes in the case the government tries to present, and it’s a more effective strategy than the government would like. This makes Jackie DiNorscio’s decision to represent himself in a RICO case involving 20 alleged members of the Lucchese crime family even more unusual.
If the last entry was a testament to the legal system’s dedication to the clarity and careful characterization of the law, this was… not that. DiNorscio, who was in prison for a separate offense at the time, wasn’t some amateur law prodigy who’d memorized law books in the prison library. His statements in court were, by all accounts, filled with less-than-proper language and borderline stand-up comedy. Still, by casting doubt on the government’s witnesses and methods, he was able to win over the jury, who found all 20 men not guilty on all counts. It even became a movie starring, of all people, Vin Diesel as DiNorscio.
DiNorscio may have been able to effectively fast-talk his way out of prison, but Hassan Bennett was nowhere near as lucky — at least at first. When he decided to represent himself in court, he’d already spent 13 years in prison for second-degree murder. Given that his previous conviction had been overturned because of ineffective counsel, which is the legal system itself admitting you lost the case because of your lawyer, it’s clear to see why he might have preferred taking things into his own hands.
Bennett dug into the legal books in the prison library with the motivation that an impending life sentence inspires, helped along by his cellmate “Brother Mook,” who had some legal knowledge of his own. He first represented himself in 2018, but the result was a hung jury, which, unbeknownst to him, was all thanks to a single juror refusing to find him not guilty. Thankfully, he got another chance, and he had plenty of ammunition: The cop who had obtained the witness statements against him had developed a reputation for coercing witness statements. Other cases had been overturned based on his suspected bogus statements, which makes it more than questionable that these two were totally true. The jury agreed and freed Bennett after more than a decade in prison.
Access to a prison law library also helped another person escape prison: Ted Bundy. Bundy, as you probably know, was a serial killer and rapist turned Netflix cash cow and unexpected target of ghoulish lust on Twitter. You’re probably confused right now, knowing for a fact hat he was, indeed, convicted.
If you’ve seen or read any of the infinite media examinations of him, you might also know that he assisted in his own legal defense. It didn’t help him win, but it did get him out of prison for a little while. See, because he was helping with his own defense, he had access to a law library connected to, but not in, the prison. If that seems insecure, it was. He soon shrewdly executed his (first) daring escape from prison by, uh, jumping out the window and running. You can find more details if you like in this article from, ironically, Women’s Health.