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.
Stewart was raised in Hyattsville, and he has lived there with his mother since his acquittal and release last month. He is an unmarried father of four and worked as a roofer before his arrest in 2005.
Although he won, Stewart said he plans a civil suit. Against whom? "Take your pick," he said, rattling off the names of defense attorneys and various officials in the criminal justice system who he believes have wronged him.
While his case was pending, to combat what he said was a concerted effort to deny him his rights, Stewart filed handwritten motions. Lots of them.
The official court file is about five inches thick. More than 4 1/2 inches are from motions Stewart filed, written in meticulously legible script, citing criminal codes and statutes. Many of the motions fault his former attorneys.
Authorities alleged that Stewart struck 43-year-old Derrick "Spud" Johnson, a guest at the Riverdale Park house where Stewart rented a room, seven times in the head and face. In a statement to police, Stewart's housemate, Kevin Green, an acquaintance of Johnson's, said Stewart had told him he didn't like having Johnson in the house.
Stewart and Green had been drinking beer on the night in question, July 11, 2005, according to prosecutors and Stewart's first attorney, Assistant Public Defender Janet Callis.
Green told police that he witnessed the attack, which he said occurred about 9:30 p.m., and that he walked to a nearby fire station to report it. Paramedics, however, did not arrive until shortly after midnight -- a possible discrepancy that did not go unnoticed by the defense.
At the first trial, in February 2006, prosecutors had a powerful witness: Stewart's sister, Nancy Dee Barahana. She testified that Stewart showed up at her home the night of the attack and told her that he thought he might have killed someone, according to Fran Longwell, the former assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the case.
The case went to the jury, but not for long. A little more than an hour into deliberations, the foreman told the judge that one of the jurors might not speak English well enough to have understood the jury instructions, Callis and Longwell said.
Judge Melanie M. Shaw Geter spoke to the juror, a woman of Asian descent who spoke conversational English, and decided the foreman's concerns were well founded. Shaw Geter declared a mistrial.
After the mistrial, Stewart's family hired lawyer David M. Simpson to represent him. In a Sept. 26, 2006, letter, Simpson encouraged his client to consider a plea deal on a charge of second-degree murder.
"Based on my review of the evidence, as well as the transcript of the earlier aborted trial, I strongly recommend that you consider the state's plea offer," he wrote. Simpson warned Stewart that he could be sentenced to life in prison if he went to trial and lost, while second-degree murder carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.
Stewart declined the offer, and Simpson soon persuaded a judge to let him out of the case. Simpson returned $4,000 of the $10,000 Stewart's family had paid him, according to court records.
"Let's just say we had a massive disagreement on how the case should be handled," Simpson said. He described Stewart's legal motions, some of which Stewart wrote when Simpson represented him, as "gibberish."
Stewart decided to represent himself. Soon, he was boning up on legal matters with material from the jail's law library.
"It's a prosecutor's nightmare," said Simpson, a former assistant state's attorney in Prince George's. "The jury has natural sympathy for someone representing himself. If you try to cut him off with objections, the jury thinks you're oppressive. If you let him go, he gets in all kinds of evidence that wouldn't usually be allowed."
The second trial began Feb. 25. Stewart wore a gray pinstripe suit his mother had bought just for the occasion. Security was tight; sheriff's deputies were stationed behind, next to and in front of Stewart, a courtroom observer said.
In his opening statement, Stewart accused the police of botching the investigation. He told the jury that Green, his former housemate, had maintained "a felonious atmosphere of drugs, and prostitution, for the last two years."
At times during the trial, Stewart embarked on long soliloquies, citing criminal codes without making a clear point. Once, when the jury was not in the room, Stewart told the judge that a police investigator had not made good on a promise to provide him with a particular photo.
"It didn't exist," Stewart said in court, according to a transcript. "That's another inconsistent act of false affirmation, which I am going to request it be recognized as actually an issue of perjury under subornation contradictory statements as to Subsection 9-101, perjury, c(1), if a person makes an oath or affirmation to two contradictory statements each of which is false is prohibited by Subsection A of this section, it is insufficient to allege and for conviction to prove that one of the statements are willfully false without specifying which one, your honor."
"Okay. Anything else?" Shaw Geter replied.
When it was her turn to testify, Barahana backed off her earlier assertion that her brother told her that he thought he'd killed someone. Instead, she testified that Stewart merely told her that someone might need help.
Prosecutors admitted into evidence an earlier statement she had given police, a more incriminating account that matched her testimony in the first trial.
In his closing argument, Stewart seized on the possible discrepancy in the timeline, noting that Green's account placed the incident more than two hours before paramedics arrived.
It is unclear exactly how the jurors reached their verdict or how they came to it so quickly. Shaw Geter did not respond to requests seeking access to the jury list. Such lists are generally public unless they are specifically sealed, and the court file in the Stewart case contains no sealing order.
Stewart said he was surrounded by at least six sheriff's deputies when the jury returned Feb. 27. A sergeant tapped him on the shoulder and advised him to stay calm, he said.
But Stewart said he wasn't worried -- and wouldn't have been no matter the outcome.
"There were probably 100 reasons to appeal," he said. "The judge made so many wrong rulings it wasn't funny."