Murder Defendant Found Man to Win Case: Himself

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008

It's an axiom known by every lawyer and judge in every courthouse in the land: A man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.

Try telling that to Harold J. Stewart.

Last month, Stewart, a 42-year-old high school dropout, defended himself in a murder case in Prince George's County, where he was accused of beating a sleeping man to death with a baseball bat.

The trial lasted three days. Stewart called no witnesses. The jury deliberated less than an hour.

The verdict: Not guilty of first-degree murder. Not guilty of second-degree murder.

"Everybody told me I was crazy to represent myself," Stewart said in an interview. "I had no choice. They were obstructing my rights."

The obstructionists, in Stewart's view, included county prosecutors, the trial judge, the assistant public defender who represented him at his first trial (which ended in a mistrial), the private defense lawyer who represented him between the two trials, jail officials he says unfairly denied him access to the law library and the state Attorney Grievance Commission.

Victories such as Stewart's are exceedingly rare. Veteran attorneys in suburban Maryland and the District said they had never heard of a pro se defendant -- a term that draws on the Latin phrase meaning "on one's own behalf" -- winning an acquittal in a murder case.

"Oh, wow," Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy said when told of the case. McCarthy said he was not aware of a pro se defendant in Montgomery winning an acquittal in a serious felony in his 27 years as a prosecutor there.

"We certainly have had pro se defendants win trials on charges like drunk driving or disorderly conduct," McCarthy said. "It's the kind of thing your colleagues generally tease you about."

Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia, a judge or prosecutor in Prince George's for 47 years, said he, too, had never heard of such an outcome in a murder case. Regarding the quick acquittal, Femia said, "It would make you wonder about the quality of the case, if a guy who knew nothing about the law could kick your [expletive]."

Through his spokesman, State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey declined to comment on the case. Assistant State's Attorneys Mary K. Brennan and Dorothy Engel, who prosecuted the case, also declined to comment.

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