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Catfish and Cod
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Self-defense: a good alibi but a poor legal strategy.
(Link path: Washington Post)

What is it about Islamic militants that makes them desperately want to act as their own counsel in court?

It can't be in hopes of winning their defense. Anyone even remotely famliar with the law system of any modern country realizes that having a lawyer, even one with rudimentary skills, beats speaking on your own behalf hands down. The rules governing the conduct of a trial are just too complicated for anyone to learn on the spur of the moment. (We can discuss whether or not this is a positive development another time.)

So what's going on? It could be their personality type. The sort of person who is so completely convinced of their righteousness that they are willing to kill would also be the person who feels they have enough righteousness to be a superlative lawyer. "The Lord shall place his words in my mouth", and all that. John Lee Mohummad does seem to share that kind of attitude with Zacharias Moussaoui, another aggressive Islamic partisan who has chosen to reject counsel in his U.S. criminal trial.

Or maybe it's for the publicity. Speaking in your own defense is rare in the United States, so it's a novelty. Choosing that route gives you just that much more media coverage, and ensures that you control what the press hears. Without a counselor interceding on your behalf, you can spin the facts according to your own personal convinctions. The jury will directly hear your side of the story, but just as importantly, so will the media. Again, Moussaoui doesn't hesitate to use his motions and oral arguments as propaganda tools in his ongoing campaign to discredit the Federal criminal court system.

Or maybe they just don't trust the lawyers. In this day and age, it's true that lawyers are often a frowned-upon segment of society. (There are exceptions. The prosecution submits the case of Erin Brockovich-Ellis, heroic paralegal, as People's Exhibit One.) But for people like Mohummad and Moussaoui, their court-appointed lawyers could feel like set-up men to them. In places less scrupulous about justice than our own, counsel for the defence could conceivably be talked into sabotaging their case for later reward. But in the United States, the only excuse for distrusting your lawyer's intentions is good old-fashioned paranoia. But hey, when you're on trial and the death penalty is a potential sentence, wouldn't you be paranoid too?