Major Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 soldiers and injuring 32 people at Fort Hood army base, was recently permitted to represent himself in court. Hasan fired his attorney in 2009, and will advocate for his acquittal beginning on July 1st of this year.
Qualifications for self-representation
According to the Sixth Amendment, a criminal can waive the right to counsel and handle his case “pro se,” or on his own behalf. After the court informs the defendant of the advantages and disadvantages of self-representation, and he voluntarily, intelligently and knowingly waives said rights, he is permitted to represent himself in court. The law further mandates for a standby counsel for defendants who choose pro se representation.
Here, the court afforded Major Hasan counsel from the Army Trial Defense Service, but a rift quickly grew between Hasan and the attorneys when he expressed that he wanted to use the “defense of others” platform. Hasan is attempting to vindicate himself by explaining that he opened fire on the American soldiers at Fort Hood in order to protect Taliban leaders from harm. However, this may not have much standing in court because the Taliban was not in immediate or unlawful threat by the American soldiers. Since Hasan’s line of defense seems stilted, it is unlikely that he will benefit from self-representation.
Effects of an alleged murderer’s cross-examination of his living victims
If convicted, Major Nidal Hasan will be sentenced to a life in prison. Unfortunately, the lasting emotional impact on his victims is also set to last a lifetime. From a legal standpoint, permitting Hasan to represent himself at trial also implicates him in the cross-examination of witnesses in the case, here his surviving victims.
Hasan’s psychiatric skills and experience with soldiers will be an asset when he questions the witnesses. Accordingly, he might be more effective for his case than a court or military-appointed attorney because he will be able to identify the psychological strengths and weaknesses of his victims.
However, the opposite effect might occur; the victims might be so traumatized by their aggressor that they will be unwavering in their testimonies, and motivated to put Major Hasan in prison. The judge and jury might also feel more sympathetic toward the witnesses because they are forced to face their aggressor, and thus are more likely to have an emotional response to the questioning.
Since he lacks an attorney‘s legal experience, Hasan might unintentionally reveal the vulnerabilities of his case by failing to counter the witnesses’ accusations. Concurrently, he will be picked apart as a witness as well as a defendant, and he might be unable to handle the pressure of examination and cross-examination. If he falters under the pressure of his victims’ eyes, Hasan will single-handedly hurt his case.
Public policy impact of self-representation
The Supreme Court has stressed the importance of legal counsel in a criminal case, by stating, “a person accused of crime requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him.” Here, Hasan expressed his awareness of the legal policies behind legal counseling, but he stated he only wanted the “opinions” of the appointed attorneys.
From a public policy standpoint, the proliferation of self-representing parties might lead to more inept court proceedings. Even if the accused research the rhetoric and techniques typically used in trials, they are unlikely to have the legal experience to win their own cases. Furthermore, self-representation might cause a significantly tenser atmosphere in the courtroom if the accused is facing his victims.
One of the attributes of an attorney’s work is that there is little emotional rapport between him or her and the party that he or she is cross-examining. An attorney may seek an emotional response in order to support his case, but his job implies detachment from the parties, and fairness in the trial’s proceedings. However, a rapist or molester will visibly intimidate and debilitate the witness on the stand. He or she will remember the trauma suffered at the hands of the criminal, and the testimony might be emotionally charged and ultimately ineffective.