If the adage is right -- that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client -- then what of the untrained criminal defendant who fires his attorney to go it alone?
Mark Wetsch, facing trial in St. Paul for more than a dozen "man-in-black" bank robberies, is among a smattering of federal defendants determined to find out.
Since firing his court-appointed attorneys in September, the 50-year-old Shakopee man has filed dozens of wordy motions, a tactic derisively called "papering the file" because it bogs down the court system and runs up costs.
Wetsch, a former nurse and ex-con who's represented himself before in civil and criminal cases, has filed a barrage of accusations and requests. He has repeatedly accused the court, federal prosecutors and two public defenders initially assigned to represent him of using "intentional, dilatory tactics." And he alleged that the prosecutor and defense attorneys conspired together to deprive him of his constitutional rights.
Wetsch has sought the removal of the federal magistrate judge overseeing many of his pre-trial motions. He's demanded money to hire experts and a legal researcher. He's asked for permission to wear a suit and dress shoes during routine court appearances, rather than orange jail garb.
And, citing his Muslim faith, he's demanded that the jails where he's been held since Jan. 3 provide him with a proper prayer rug and well-balanced, halal-certified meals.
Wetsch has made some headway. He's won extensions to filing deadlines. He got a court order to change jails, from Anoka to Sherburne County. And he won approval for his request for halal foods, though he continues to complain that jail administrators are failing to meet his strict dietary standards.
Wetsch also succeeded in overturning an August ruling by Magistrate Judge Jeanne Graham that denied his request to change attorneys. Since then, however, he has rejected his replacement counsel and opted to continue representing himself.
On Nov. 6, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson denied his motions to have Graham removed from the case. She also rejected his motion to sanction the prosecutor and public defenders for perceived improprieties.
Graham has since rejected his request to wear what he called "proper clothing" in pre-trial court appearances. She refused his request for funds to hire legal researchers, investigators and experts, reasoning that the law only allows reimbursement to "counsel." She did grant Wetsch an extension on his pre-trial motions, but said she would not allow him to file new motions after Nov. 20.
Legal? Yes. Good idea? No
It's rare for federal criminal defendants to go without legal counsel. Of 306 defendants charged this year in Minnesota, Wetsch is one of just two who have been granted permission to proceed "pro-se." The other defendant has only filed a handful of motions since getting permission Nov. 26.
Lawyers say it is almost always a bad idea for defendants to represent themselves. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants have a right to do so if they are mentally competent and understand their rights.
"And so we have to abide by that and make sure that they understand what their rights are," said Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis. "Usually, we have standby counsel ready for them," he noted.
The standby is generally the lawyer the defendant rejected in the first place, unless the court finds that a total breakdown in communications took place. That's what happened in the Wetsch case. Nelson replaced his public defenders with Jordan Kushner, who remains his standby counsel.
Bradford Colbert, a Minnesota public defender and adjunct faculty member at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, said some defendants do a decent job of representing themselves. But "I think for the most part it's a bad idea," he added.
Problems for judges
Colbert said pro-se defendants make the legal process harder for everyone. Judges and prosecutors hate it, he said. Judges, in particular, sometimes end up covering for a defendant's legal mistakes.
"It puts the court in an awkward position," said Paul Engh, a prominent Twin Cities criminal defense attorney.
Engh said the desire to represent one's self is often rooted in egoistic traits that play poorly before a jury. Defendants, unfamiliar with court rules and decorum, run the risk of insulting judges and prosecutors, he said. "That's never a good strategy."
Jeffrey Cole Bennett, who was recently convicted in an embezzlement and kickback scheme, found that out the hard way. Although he was represented by an attorney, Bennett filed several motions directly to U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz. The judge warned him not to do so, saying that he couldn't communicate directly with someone represented by counsel.
Then, before his sentencing, Bennett fired his attorney and began representing himself. He sent Schiltz a list of questions, prompting the judge to respond, "I am not your lawyer, and I cannot provide legal advice to you." Schiltz declined to appoint standby counsel for Bennett, saying it's up to the appeals court now that he's been convicted. Bennett accused Schiltz of being hostile to him and sought unsuccessfully to change judges before his sentencing.
Andrew Mohring, the first assistant federal defender in Minnesota, said defendants are discouraged from representing themselves but he understands why some insist: "People want to be the masters of their own fate."
But they'll get no special treatment, Mohring said. "You're bound by the rules of evidence. You're required to have a working understanding of the rules of criminal procedure," he said. "People can wander into situations and get themselves into a whole lot of trouble."
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493