TAMPA — He who represents himself has an idiot for a lawyer and a fool for a client. That's an adage attorneys like to use about those who opt for a defense that is pro se, a Latin term for "on one's own behalf."
Next week in Hillsborough Circuit Court, 31-year-old Luis Munuzuri-Harris will represent himself in trial, against charges that he posed as an undercover narcotics officer to pull over a woman, rob and rape her along Bayshore Boulevard. He has no law degree and could get life in prison if convicted.
Bad idea, legal experts say of his defending himself.
Charles Rose, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, puts it this way: "It's like trying to dance with somebody who doesn't know how to dance, or trying to play a game with someone who doesn't know the rules."
Trials are governed by rules of evidence. They apply to everyone equally, regardless of whether one is a lawyer.
Last year, the American Bar Association surveyed about 1,000 state trial judges about self-representation in civil matters. Most said people made procedural errors and failed to present necessary evidence, properly object, effectively examine witnesses and craft good arguments. They said people hurt their defenses when they go pro se.
The same can apply to criminal court cases, said Tampa lawyer Frances Perrone. A defendant may ask the wrong questions or blurt out something that could prejudice the jury.
When it comes time for cross-examination of the victim, prosecutors will make sure Harris stays within the limits of the rules of evidence. He won't get free rein to ask anything he wants, Perrone said.
Historically, in Tampa sex court, rape suspects acting pro se have been allowed to question victims.
But Rose thinks the state should be able to ask the judge to replace Harris with a public defender for that portion of the trial.
Assistant Public Defender Maria Pavlidis, who had started Harris' defense, will be on standby.
Defendants have a right to act as their own lawyers. But Rose said Harris will not win an appeal if he tries to argue that he was his own ineffective counsel, because he has properly been questioned and knows what he's getting himself into.
In 2004, a Pinellas man also facing a hefty sentence insisted on representing himself in a murder trial. His standby lawyer thought Emory Carter had a decidedly defendable case.
But Carter rambled during closing statements, missed key points and cursed the judge.
He will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.