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Why some defendants, against all odds, go it alone

A mugshot of David Viens.
A mugshot of David Viens. L.A. County Sheriff's Department

The odds are low that your average criminal defendant who chooses to act as his or her own lawyer will win a case. Yet many try. 

Earlier this week, two defendants in high-profile cases in Los Angeles invoked their constitutional right to go it alone. Louie Sanchez, accused of attacking Giants fan Bryan Stow after Opening Day 2011 at Dodger Stadium, opted to represent himself without help from a public defender. And David Viens, awaiting sentencing on a conviction of second degree murder for killing and then cooking his wife, fired his attorney and will act as his own lawyer.

It's a defendant's constitutional right to go this route, says Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, and more people than you might think choose to do it. 

There are a number of reasons. A defendant who might have been in the system before and thinks he or she know the ropes. Or looks to delay court proceedings. 

Levenson says it's more common to see people assigned public defenders (because they can't afford private representation) represent themselves. 

"They think it’s bad that they have a government lawyer representing them when they’re being prosecuted by the government," Levenson says - and hastens to add, that's a mistake. 

"I think they're fairly delusional that they think they'll be effective," says Levenson, a former prosecutor. And the situation's not great for the judge or prosecutor either: they have to be extra vigilant to make sure the defendant, who is likely not aware of proper criminal procedures, obtains a fair trial.

Jurors, Levenson says, are often aware of this disadvantage.

"In their minds, they'll make arguments they think a defense attorney would have (made) to compensate," she says. 

If convicted – and Levenson says she's aware of a handful of cases in which the defendant was successful – the defendant will also have the task, like others convicted of crimes, of appealing the case by themselves if they can't afford a private attorney.

It's common to see amateur lawyers in prison as inmates try to find holes in the cases against them. Levenson says that seldom works.

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