‘Like doing brain surgery on yourself’: Why lawyers say acting as your own attorney is a bad idea

There’s an oft-repeated saying in legal circles that goes: “He who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.”

Which brings us to Monday’s startling revelation that Highland Park parade shooting suspect Robert Crimo III is parting with his defense team and will act as his own lawyer -- go pro se, in legalese -- when he faces trial on charges that could put him away for life.

And he demanded that trial ASAP -- a request that expedited the planned start date from early 2025 to February 2024.

Lake County Judge Victoria Rossetti questioned him about his plan, making sure he understood his request and its consequences. But despite her apparent misgivings, and the defendant’s admitted legal inexperience, Rossetti ultimately allowed it.

After all, representing oneself in court is a constitutional right with few exceptions.

But while it’s a right, it’s rarely the right thing to do, according to some criminal law experts we spoke with this week.

“It’s an incredibly, incredibly dangerous set of circumstances,” said Thomas Glasgow, a former Cook County prosecutor who now does criminal defense work through his Schaumburg-based law firm, Glasgow & Olsson. “It’s like doing brain surgery on yourself.”

Tom Glasgow

The pitfalls are many, but perhaps the most obvious is that it hands the other side a massive competitive advantage. Prosecutors -- particularly in high-profile cases -- not only have legal education and training on their side, but years and years of courtroom experience.

Pro se defendants, on the other hand, typically won’t know the rules well enough to get in the evidence they want juries to see or object to evidence that shouldn’t be admitted.

“It’s like trying to run a marathon when all you’ve done (to train) is walk down to the mailbox to get the mail,” Glasgow said. “You’re not going to have the ability to run the race.”

Bill Bligh, a former McHenry County prosecutor who now is a sole practitioner in Woodstock, said that besides knowing the law, an attorney will bring to a case knowledge of the judge and prosecutors.

“As a criminal defendant, you’re on a journey you don’t want to be on,” Bligh said. “An attorney can be your guide on that journey and make it as painless as possible.”

Being locked up while awaiting trial -- as with the Highland Park suspect -- presents another roadblock for pro se defendants. Access to evidence and documents may be limited, and, unlike an attorney, an incarcerated defendant can’t go out to speak with witnesses or examine crime scenes. And in some cases, a defendant is barred from speaking with witnesses -- especially victims -- a prohibition not normally imposed on a defense lawyer.

Then there’s how one appears before a jury. A defendant sitting quietly through a trial can engender some sympathy from jurors. One who spends days or weeks interrogating witnesses, fighting with prosecutors and arguing with the judge over evidence?

“That sort of back and forth between a defendant or judge, or defendant and witness, takes away any chance of coming across as sympathetic,” Glasgow said.

A losing proposition?

There hasn’t been a ton of research into how defendants who represent themselves fare in trials involving serious crimes, but what’s out there offers a mixed bag.

A study of federal felony cases from 1996 to 2011 conducted by the Federal Courts Law Review found that pro se defendants were convicted 95% of the time, compared to 82% of cases with a private attorney and 86% of those with court-appointed lawyers.

Another study published by the North Carolina Law Review found that conviction rates in state court felony cases that went to trial were roughly equal, while pro se defendants had greater success in getting their case outright dismissed before trial.

So, with the deck seemingly stacked against a pro se defendant, why would anyone represent themselves? It may be that they don’t like what they’re hearing from their attorney, or are hopeless and figure it won’t make a difference.

Some just believe that they need to speak for themselves.

“They want to be able to tell their own story and don’t think anyone can do it the way they can,” Bligh said.

There’s also a chance they’re getting bad advice from so-called “jailhouse lawyers,” fellow inmates who have learned just enough law to be dangerous, Glasgow said.

“Why would anyone take legal advice from a person who can’t get themselves out of jail?” he added.

The season of giving

Buffalo Grove police dog Mac must have been a good boy, because he’s receiving a special gift this holiday season.

Thanks to a donation from the non-profit organization Vested Interest in K9s, Inc., Mac is set to be outfitted with a bullet- and stab-resistant vest. The two-year-old sable German shepherd joined the department in June and is partnered with Officer Shannon McMillon, who has been a member of the department since 2014.

Mac’s duties include narcotics detection, tracking and locating criminal suspects and missing persons, and conducting searches.

Since it was established in 2009, Vested Interest in K9s, Inc., has provided some 5,379 vests to dogs across the country. Funding comes from private and corporate donations.

Buffalo Grove police dog Mac, here with partner Officer Shannon McMillon, soon will receive a stab- and bullet-resistant vest. Courtesy of Village of Buffalo Grove
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