"A man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client." It's an axiom known by every lawyer -- and every judge -- in every courthouse in the land. But try telling that to Kurt James. The 23-year old was dead set on defending himself, despite facing two felonies -- both punishable by life in prison.
“I ain’t going to prison, “ snapped James, as he sat in Courtroom 6780 in the Broward County Courthouse. “You trippin’. I going to trial.”
No one is required to have an attorney. By law, you have the right to represent yourself...as long as you're deemed competent to do so. In this case, the court found that James was competent. Still, Judge Jeffrey Levenson tried to dissuade James from acting as his own lawyer, as he’s required by law, explaining the potential consequences.
“Who do you think has the better chance to help you?,” asked the judge. “You, who’s never been to law school, who’s never had any experience as a lawyer, or perhaps someone from the Public Defenders Office with years of experience?”
But, in the end, his advice went unheeded - and the trial began.
“Mr. James was involved in that armed carjacking. He was involved in that armed robbery. There’s no doubt he was involved in that.” That emphatic charge by Assistant State Attorney, Scott Strauss, as he spoke to the jury.
Clearly, this was a unique position for the prosecutor.
“You don’t want to come off overzealous or I guess bullying in front of the jury.”
James was charged with one count of armed carjacking, one count of robbery with a firearm, both felonies, punishable by life in prison. He was also facing a couple of misdemeanors. According to the arrest form, James and two others allegedly held up a man at gunpoint as he was leaving International Brokers Realty off U.S. One and Pembroke Road October 18, 2010. The victim testified that they got away with an $1,800 watch, his cell phone and a handful of other items. The record shows the trio tried to steal the man’s Mercedes but were unable to figure out how to get it in gear, and left in their own vehicle. They were caught minutes later after an intense pursuit through several cities.
For the most part, James did alright. But, it was obvious he was often frustrated, confused - and at times, angry particularly when he couldn’t speak the legal language.
“That’s just how I talk, man,” he told Strauss. “You don’t understand the street talk, how we talk.”
But, James made what some legal observers consider his worst decision when he called himself to the stand to explain why he originally confessed.
It took jurors a little more than two hours to reach a verdict. Guilty: Armed Carjacking. Guilty: Robbery with a firearm. One problem. Jurors crossed out the word firearm on the form, which is not permitted by law. The judge was going to send the panel back to reconsider its verdict, but decided to let things stand in anticipation the case will eventually end up being appealed, anyway.