Dr. Death, Attorney at Law


As the recently sentenced Dr.

Death begins his 10 to 25 years

of air-conditioned heel-cooling

in the Michigan gulag system,

it's high time to amend the

cliché, "A lawyer who

represents himself has a fool

for a client." (It's a

cliché, we might add,

only because it's so true, which

is itself a cliché, only

because it's so, well,

cliché.) Indeed, with the

ready example of Jack

Kevorkian's conviction for

second-degree murder before us,

we can fully appreciate that

it's not simply smug shysters

who have shit for brains. MDs

have now officially joined the

parade of self-deluding idiots.

Had Kevorkian not passed so much

time in close proximity to car

exhaust and other

brain-deadening vapors, he might

have paused before deciding to

act as his own counsel. Indeed,

had he done the minimal legal

research that a real lawyer—or

even his former attorney, the

estimable Geoffrey Fieger, who

is currently arguing in court

that TV's Jenny Jones is a

killer—might have insisted

upon, Kevorkian would have

realized that even (or

especially) "innocent" men

accused of murder do pretty

badly when representing

themselves in court. To wit, the

cases of Colin Ferguson, Mumia

Abu-Jamal, and Charles Manson.

In 1993, Ferguson killed six

people on a Long Island Railroad

commuter train. When the

Jamaican immigrant came up for

trial a couple of years later,

he waved off legal

representation from radical chic

lawyers William Kunstler and

Ronald Kuby after they insulted

him by suggesting—nay,

insisting—that he was more

than a little coconuts and that

an insanity plea was his only

possible ticket to slide. As

Kuby put it, "We have a right to

portray him as a profoundly

disturbed individual who

suffered from mental illness

brought on by exposure to white


Ferguson's "black

rage," however, was in this

instance directed only at the

special Ks, whom he demoted to

"advisers," before proceeding to

put on a legal clinic that only

a punch-drunk jurist like Judge

Mills Lane could have followed.

Included were Perry Mason moves

such as asking one eyewitness,

"Is it your testimony that you

saw no one shot?" The response:

"I saw you shooting everyone on

the train, OK?"

He also asked

jurors to raise their hands if

they were "hockey fans" and,

after a slew of people had

testified against him, boasted

to Larry King that he would be

acquitted precisely because

"very few witnesses were able to

point a finger at me." While

such a defense went a long way

toward proving Kunstler and

Kuby's insanity case, it failed

to sway the requisite single

juror, and Ferguson was

sentenced to 200—count 'em –


Cause célèbre

Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted in

1982 of killing a Philadelphia

policeman, has simultaneously

fared better and worse than

Ferguson. On the upside,

Abu-Jamal's journalism career,

which had been languishing for

some years (he was driving a

taxi at the time of the

shooting), really got back on

track after his conviction.

He became a National Public

Radio commentator, and his book,

Live from Death Row, became a

big seller.

Over the years,

glitterati such as novelist E.

L. Doctorow have come to his

defense, and just this past

January, a Free Mumia benefit

concert featuring Rage Against

the Machine, the Beastie Boys,

and other acts drew a crowd of

20,000. On the downside, after

defending himself, Abu-Jamal

received both a death sentence

and highly public support from

such embarrassingly

low-magnitude TV stars as Ed

Asner and Mike Farrell.

Like Ferguson, Abu-Jamal's

self-defense was filled with

what might charitably be

described as tactical blunders,

such as eliciting this testimony

from a cabbie on the scene: "I

saw you, buddy. I saw you shoot

him and I never took my eyes off

you." He also spent a fair

amount of court time expounding

on the racial separatist group

MOVE's philosophy and openly

insulted the racially mixed jury

during the penalty phase.

Abu-Jamal, now represented by

Leonard Weinglass (memorably

described by one reporter as

"perhaps the eighth smartest

member of the Chicago Seven"),

is working on his final death

row appeal. If it goes nowhere,

which is the likely scenario,

given the defense's inability to

explain away key physical

evidence and the fact that one

of its strategies involves a

search for an unidentified

gunman with "Johnny Mathis hair"

– he will almost certainly be

given a lethal injection.

Surprisingly, that's a fate that

Charlie Manson, the undisputed

champion of lawyers with fools

for clients, has managed to

avoid. The would-be pop star's

bid at self-representation went

so spectacularly wrong that even

though he could not be

definitively placed at the scene

of either the Tate or the

LaBianca murders in 1969, he

managed to garner a death

penalty on seven counts of

first-degree murder and one

count of conspiracy to commit

murder (the death sentence was

later commuted to "life with the

possibility of parole" when

executions were ruled

unconstitutional in the 1970s).

How did Manson swing such an

outcome? With tactics

unthinkable even on a

sweeps-week episode of Ally

McBeal: He fired his lawyer and

threatened him with death,

physically attacked the judge,

carved a swastika in his

forehead during the proceedings,

and delivered statements filled

with lines such as, "If I could

I would jerk this microphone out

and beat your brains out with it

because that is what you

deserve, that is what you


Kevorkian, to his credit—if

not the benefit of Court TV's

ratings—did not engage in the

sort of legal high jinks that

distinguished the Ferguson,

Abu-Jamal, and Manson cases.

Indeed, Dr. Death essentially

laid it on the line and simply

asked the jury, "Just look at

me. Do you see a murderer?" In

the end, however, such arguments

proved no more compelling than

Ferguson's, Abu-Jamal's, or

Manson's, and the jury voted

thumbs down. Kevorkian showed up

at the sentencing phase with a

bona fide lawyer and statements

of support from the widow and

the brother of the man he

killed, but by then it was too

little, too late.

While one might think that such

a recent, high-profile,

self-defense flop, not to

mention the seemingly unending

list of do-it-yourself legal

losers, might put the kibosh on

the practice, it seems, to

paraphrase another

cliché, that dopes spring

eternal. Indeed, even as the

cell door was slamming shut on

Kevorkian, Chuck Jones, the

former publicist for Marla

Maples who in 1994 was found

guilty of stealing and entering

into an unholy union with the

former Mrs. Trump's shoes,

announced that he would serve as

his own lawyer in his upcoming

retrial (his conviction was

overturned in 1996 on the

grounds that he was "deprived of

counsel"). His first action was

to enter Maples' psychiatric

records into the proceedings.

Seemingly laying the groundwork

for his own insanity plea, Jones

told the New York Daily News,

"Marla has a history of mental

depression…. A lot of things

that she thought happened were

in her mind. I know the whole

story. She invented danger that

was nonexistent." Pledging that

he was only going to "bring out

the facts," the shoe fetishist

perhaps unconsciously signaled

his real strategy by insisting,

"I don't want her to leave the

court crying." In other words,

it's all over but the shouting –

and the sentencing.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.