A federal judge ruled yesterday that stalking and kidnapping suspect Christopher Andaryl Wills can serve as his own attorney. But the judge did not address the key issue of whether Wills, who is charged with causing the death of a witness in an earlier case, can get access to the names and addresses of witnesses in this case.
U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton's ruling clears the way for an unusual trial on Jan. 18, in which Wills, 33, could be pleading for his own life.
The Justice Department has not announced whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Wills, who is accused of arranging the disappearance and presumed death of Zabiuflah Alam, after Alam, 22, testified at a preliminary hearing that Wills was the man who had burglarized his Fairfax County apartment. Alam disappeared in June 1998; his body has not been found.
Wills earlier this month filed a motion seeking to represent himself in the case.
Hilton granted that request at yesterday's hearing in Alexandria but also ordered Wills's lawyers, Robert Stanley Powell and Alan Yamamoto, to stay on the case as "standby counsel," in case Wills wants advice or changes his mind.
The lawyers may also have to serve as a filter for giving evidence to Wills. Ordinarily in a capital case, prosecutors must turn over grand jury testimony and the names and addresses of witnesses and potential jury members to the defense before trial. In cases in which danger to witnesses is a concern, judges can order the defense not to share key information with anyone who might misuse it.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles P. Rosenberg has told the judge that the lives of witnesses could be endangered if Wills is given that information and has suggested that prosecutors turn the material over to the standby counsel rather than to Wills himself. Prosecutors have not filed a motion that would make that request official, but both sides said they expect it soon.
Wills complained in court yesterday about the standby arrangement.
"I can't effectively represent myself through standby counsel. I need access to information," he told the judge. He added that he was not being allowed to make phone calls and that the Orange County regional jail where he is being held lacks legal reference material. Rosenberg said Wills will be allowed to make phone calls.
Hilton did not address the issue of witness names, addresses and testimony, but he told Wills that "you will have access to that information you are entitled to." The federal law requiring that witness addresses be turned over does allow a judge to craft an exemption if he finds there is need.
It is highly unusual for a defendant to represent himself in a death penalty case, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Such requests must be handled carefully, because they can easily become the subject for an appeal, he said.
Although the Supreme Court found in 1975 that defendants have the right to represent themselves, judges must make sure a defendant is competent, understands the consequences and is making the choice voluntarily.
Wills's lawyers had asked Hilton to question Wills in depth about his choice, but the judge spent less than three minutes talking to the defendant before ruling that Wills could try his own case. And when Rosenberg suggested that the judge had failed to ask whether Wills had acted voluntarily, Hilton dismissed the issue.
Wills "has made his motion more than once after thinking it over for a week. It seems to me it's voluntary," the judge said.
Wills has pressed his own case before. In 1997, he persuaded a Baltimore City judge to drop armed robbery charges because he had been held for more than 18 months without trial, a violation of his right to a speedy trial.