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Amateur lawyer finds first case is tough

TAMPA — With the jury waiting in another room on Friday, a bailiff unlatched Arturo Garcia's handcuffs. The 30-year-old flexed his hands, straightened his dress shirt and mussed his hair.

Then he looked down at his notes. He had to prepare for his opening statement.

Garcia, on trial for cocaine possession and already facing 15 years in prison on another conviction, was adding the unexpected to a seemingly routine narcotics trial.

"I will represent myself," he told the jury moments later, "and I will prove to you guys that I'm not guilty of these charges."

Or at least he would try. With no legal training, no prepared defense and limited English, Garcia faced a judge who discouraged his plan.

"I have begged, pleaded and implored you to accept the services of the Public Defender's Office," Judge Gregory Holder said.

But the amateur lawyer refused to reconsider.

So Garcia plodded to the lectern to give his opening statement, which lasted for all of 30 seconds. Then he cross-examined three law enforcement officials about what prosecutors said was Garcia's sale of cocaine last summer.

"I object," Garcia exclaimed when prosecutors displayed cocaine to the jury. "I have no idea what's going on here."

Holder warned that might happen, "because you didn't go to law school."

But the judge wasn't giving a seminar on the rules of evidence, he said. Objection overruled. Soon, Garcia had been twice threatened with contempt and warned he risked adding perjury charges to his criminal record.

Prosecutors previously offered Garcia a deal that would have given him a concurrent 75-month sentence that added no additional jail time to an existing 15-year sentence. He rejected the deal, and as jury selection was about to begin Wednesday, fired his public defender.

In his closing argument, Garcia bemoaned what he called the injustices of the Hillsborough County judicial system.

"Those people are lying; they do it all the time," he told jurors, motioning to prosecutors and law officers. "It's my life, and they don't care about it."

As the jurors began to deliberate, Assistant State Attorney Felix Vega worried they might have developed sympathy for the rumpled amateur lawyer, as sometimes happens in the rare cases in which defendants represent themselves.

"Everyone thinks it's a clear advantage for us," he said in an interview. "No, it's not."

Vega needn't have worried.

The jury returned a half-hour later: guilty on all charges. Garcia lowered his head, his face pale, his discontentment clear. Holder sentenced him to 15 years in prison on top of the first 15-year sentence.

Then the judge thanked the jurors for their service. "This system may not be perfect, but it is the best system in the world," he said.

Garcia, back in handcuffs and shaking his head, laughed.

Thomas Kaplan can be reached at (813) 226-3404 or tkaplan@sptimes.com.

Amateur lawyer finds first case is tough 07/11/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2008 5:33pm]

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