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Pro Se Wins Murder Trial... What Are the Odds of That?

Harold Stewart is one lucky guy.  He beat murder charges in a Prince George's County, Maryland courtroom not just once, but twice.  The first time, the judge declared a mistrial after discovering that one of the jurors did not speak English well enough to understand the jury instructions.  And the second time around, Stewart won an acquittal outright as a pro se litigant.  If the outcome of Stewart's case seems unlikely... well, that's because it is.   Judge Vincent Femia, a Prince George's County judge and former prosecutor with 47 years of experience told the Washington Post, which carried the story, that he was not aware of a pro se defendant ever winning an acquittal in a serious felony his in all his years of practice.

Stewart didn't start out pro se.  Accused of beating of sleeping man with a baseball bat, Stewart was represented by a public defender at his first trial.  There, Stewart's sister testified that Stewart had come to her house shortly after the alleged attack and confessed that he thought that he might have killed someone.  But after Stewart's case went to the jury, the foreman reported to the judge that one of the jurors did not speak English well enough to understand the jury instructions.  After interviewing the juror, the judge agreed and declared a mistrial. 

Stewart's family retained David Simpson, a private lawyer to represent him at the second trial.  But after reviewing the transcript from the first trial, Simpson recommended that Stewart accept a plea bargain.  Stewart refused, so Simpson withdrew. 

At the second trial, Stewart's sister backtracked from her original testimony, explaining that Stewart had asked for help and denying that he ever expressed concern that he'd killed someone.  And Simpson also seized on a discrepancy between a witness' statement that placed the incident two hours earlier than the time that paramedics arrived at the scene.   Stewart did not call any witnesses.  The jury deliberated only an hour before arriving at the not guilty verdict.  Thus far, reporters have not been able to identify or contact jurors, so there is no further information as to why the jury reached its verdict so quickly.

In many ways, it's somewhat ironic that news of Stewart's pro se win issued today -- when other stories remind us of the utter necessity of competent and vigorous defense counsel.  At Grits for Breakfast, Scott Henson discusses Rothgery v. Gillespie County, argued today at the Supreme Court, where the Court will consider the issue of when the right to counsel attaches in the arrest process.  Petitioner Rothgery argues that he should have been assigned counsel when he went before a judge at the initial probable cause proceeding.  Rothgery contends that had he been assigned counsel from the outset, the attorney would have discovered the error in the records and he would have avoided jail time.

And at WSJ Law Blog, Dan Slater analyzes some of the discrepancies between Andrew Fastow's testimony at the Enron trial and the 420 pages of investigative notes that the government did not produce, in violation of its obligation to produce all exculpatory evidence as required by Brady v. Maryland.

In this context, Harold Stewart was lucky indeed.  Apparently, his case didn't include any Brady materials that as a pro se litigant, he would have lacked the savvy to demand.  And in contrast to Rothgery, the records in Stewart's case weren't erroneous -- and in fact (in the case of the paramedic records), helped him to win his case.  When you think about some of the prosecutorial abuses in the criminal process even where defendants are represented by counsel, the odds that Stewart could beat his charges at a pro se are very high indeed. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on March 17, 2008 at 04:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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