Christopher Andaryl Wills, scheduled to go on trial next month in federal court in Alexandria, has decided to exercise a right available to any criminal defendant: He wants to serve as his own lawyer.
Under most circumstances, no one would have a problem with such a request. But in Wills's case, it has drawn a sharp response from the prosecutor and created a dilemma for the judge.
Wills, 33, is charged with causing the death of Zabiuflah Alam, the chief witness against Wills in a 1998 Fairfax burglary case. If Wills represents himself, he will be entitled to see the names and addresses of prosecution witnesses in the new case.
Judges can order defense attorneys not to share key information with anyone who might put witnesses in jeopardy. But if Wills acts as his own lawyer, such an order would be meaningless, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles P. Rosenberg wrote in a motion filed Thursday.
"Given Mr. Wills's obvious disdain for the criminal justice system . . . we are not at all confident that a protective order . . . would adequately protect our interests or, more important, the lives of our witnesses," Rosenberg wrote.
Wills allegedly organized the disappearance and presumed death of Alam, 22, who had identified Wills as the burglar who broke into Alam's Fairfax County home.
After Alam testified at a preliminary hearing, Wills left a flier advertising landscaping jobs outside Alam's home, lured him to Union Station for a job interview and then caused him to be killed, according to a grand jury indictment. Alam's body has never been found.
The Justice Department has not decided whether to seek the death penalty against Wills.
In a letter made public Thursday, Wills wrote U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton that he doesn't want to work with his court-appointed attorneys, Robert Stanley Powell and Alan Yamamoto. "I formally request that . . . the government make disclosures and requests to me--counsel for myself," Wills wrote.
Reached by phone at the Alexandria jail, where he is being held until his Jan. 18 trial, Wills declined to comment.
By law, the government must turn over witness names, addresses and grand jury testimony to the defense in death-penalty cases, although the address sometimes may include just the town.
Rosenberg suggested in his motion that Hilton appoint Wills's current attorneys to act as advisers and "standby counsel," and require Wills to go through them to see the evidence and witness list.
However, several lawyers said they do not think a judge can force Wills to go through lawyers to get that information.
"He has certain rights under the Sixth Amendment to effective counsel . . . . And if he's his own counsel, he needs to have direct access to the information to be effective," said Abbe Smith, a Georgetown University associate professor.
Wills's request also raises questions of fairness in a case that could carry the death penalty, lawyers said. "It's absolute insanity to represent yourself if you're faced with what he is faced with," said James Clark, an Alexandria lawyer.
Wills is no stranger to the legal system, and at times has been his own best advocate.
In 1996 and 1997, Wills was imprisoned for more than 14 months awaiting trial on state carjacking and robbery charges in Baltimore. During that time, Wills--not his lawyers--complained that his right to a speedy trial was being violated. Eventually, a Baltimore circuit court judge took Wills's complaint seriously and dismissed the state charges.
Unlike other high-profile defendants who have tried to represent themselves, such as Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and Long Island Railroad shooter Colin Ferguson, Wills is not facing questions about his mental capacity. His letter to Hilton was accompanied by a series of cogent handwritten motions that reflect a good grasp of the legal process.
Clark speculated that Wills may be hoping that prosecutors and jurors will be uncomfortable seeking the death penalty against a man who has no lawyer.
Hilton has scheduled a hearing in the Wills case for Monday.
Under a 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Wills has a constitutional right to represent himself, and the federal appeals court covering Virginia has held that judges may--but aren't required to--appoint standby counsel for defendants who serve as their own attorney.