What happens when a murder suspect facing the death penalty represents himself in court?


James Calvert is a Texas man on trial for killing his ex-wife. Earlier this week, he waived his Fifth Amendment rights, which protect him from self-incrimination. You might be wondering: Who the hell is Calvert’s lawyer?

James Calvert.

Calvert is one of thousands of defendants in the U.S. who choose to represent themselves in court. His unconventional defense strategy has led to a circus-like atmosphere this week in his courtroom in Tyler, Texas, a city about an hour-and-a-half east of Dallas. But the high stakes of this capital murder case have some asking whether justice can really be served by letting someone who clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing represent himself.

Calvert, 44, is accused of murdering his ex-wife, Jelena Sriraman, on Halloween 2012. According to the prosecution, Calvert shot Sriraman five to six times in the wake of a contentious custody battle. He then allegedly left her dead in her house and fled with their four-year-old son Lucas. A police officer pulled him over twelve hours later for a traffic violation in Louisiana and found two rifles and two handguns in his car, one of which was apparently used in the murder.

Prosecutors are asking the 12-person jury to give Calvert the death sentence.

Even before the trial officially began Tuesday, Calvert has made some bad mistakes. At a pretrial hearing on Monday, he took the witness stand to argue in favor of a motion he was making and agreed to waive his Fifth Amendment rights. (He asked himself questions and answered them.) The first question of the cross-examination was, perhaps, predictable: “Did you shoot your wife?” asked Matt Bingham, the Smith County District Attorney. Calvert didn’t answer, objecting instead. The judge told him he had to answer.

Then, Calvert said he wanted his Fifth Amendment rights back.

Many of his courtroom antics almost seem like improvisation: He suggested to the court that he would plead not guilty by reason of insanity, but then refused to officially file a plea; he’s subpoenaed reporters covering the trial; last year, sheriff’s deputies literally dragged Calvert into the courtroom after he refused to attend a pretrial hearing.

“If the defendant makes a bad impression on the jury, it can be a whole lot easier” for them to find in favor of the death penalty, said Buck Files, a local attorney who has been following the case. “Yesterday, Calvert was objecting to a witness every one and a half minutes… He is his own worst enemy.”

And while many of his objections aren’t actually based in case-law, they are creative:

It’s exceedingly rare for defendants to represent themselves in capital murder cases.

Nadal Malik Hasan, the shooter who killed 13 people at the Fort Hood military base in 2009, represented himself in a military trial after firing his lawyers. He presented no defense—his lawyers had planned to call 59 witnesses—and was sentenced to death in 2013. The case is now going through an automatic appeals process.

Also in Texas, a former lawyer who shot and killed two prosecutors in a courthouse was executed in 1994 after representing himself and refusing to appeal his own death sentence.

But in general, courts in the U.S. have seen a big rise in self-representation, known as pro se representation, over the last few decades, according to the National Center for State Courts. In some states, more than 75 percent of all family court defendants represent themselves.

The 1975 Supreme Court case Faretta v. California found that defendants only need to be “literate, competent, and understanding” in order to represent themselves. But in the 2008 case Indiana v. Edwards, the justices ruled that defendants may be forced to accept legal counsel in cases of mental illness. There’s been no such diagnosis for Calvert.

The vast majority of self-representing defendants are in civil cases, in which there is not a right to representation, said Richard Zorza, a former public defender who has led an advocacy group to help support self-represented clients. Most of these people chose to represent themselves because they can’t afford a lawyer.

“I’m not sure a capital case should be allowed to go forward without counsel,” Zorza said. “It sounds like a nightmare.”

Calvert has two court-appointed “standby” lawyers sitting in the front row of the courtroom who he can ask for advice and who could present a mitigation case before his sentencing if he’s convicted. Judge Jack Skeen has warned Calvert that if he continues to repeatedly disrupt the court, he could make him accept legal counsel and possibly start the case over.

“It’s a horribly painful experience,” Files said. “You sit there and watch it, and you see he’s doing everything wrong and he’s going to die, but he has the right to make that decision.”

The prosecution and defense both declined to comment.

Calvert gets four hours a day while in prison to use a laptop in order to prepare his defense. A county investigation revealed he was using the technology to help other inmates with their legal issues, a violation of the rules, KLTV reported. Calvert called that contention a “ridiculous asinine facade.”

Self-representation can make for some disturbing courtroom scenes. In one New York City case in 2008, an accused rapist representing himself cross-examined his own victim on the witness stand.

So far, the prosecution’s witnesses have tried to avoid looking at Calvert during the questioning. When she testified yesterday, Calvert’s ex-wife Deirdre Adams, who was friends with the murder victim, seemed understandably uncomfortable being questioned by Calvert. “We knew something would happen eventually to one or the both of us,” she said.

A therapist who had worked with Calvert’s son Lucas testified—over Calvert’s objections—that Lucas had told her Calvert had shot his mother. She presented a stick-figure drawing by the boy showing him watching TV while the shooting took place. “Pop pop pop,” the sound of gunshots, was written across the top of the drawing.

The boy is terrified of coming to court, the therapist said, worried about the police officers who will be there. But he may have no choice—Calvert has subpoenaed his own son.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Calvert was dragged into the courtroom.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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