(Reuters) - A Chinese woman charged in March with lying to get into U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort while carrying multiple electronic devices, has decided to act as her own lawyer.
Yujing Zhang is charged with making false statements to a federal officer and entering or remaining in a restricted area, in an incident that raised concerns about security at the Palm Beach, Florida club. She has pleaded not guilty.
U.S. District Judge Roy Altman in Fort Lauderdale, Florida signed off on Zhang’s decision at a hearing on Tuesday, finding her mentally competent to represent herself, though he ordered that the public defenders initially assigned to her remain on standby in case she has questions or changes her mind.
Zhang’s choice is unusual, but not unprecedented. Criminal defendants in the United States are guaranteed a court-appointed lawyer if they cannot afford to hire their own, but the justice system has a set of rules for defendants who refuse that offer, as well.
Criminal defendants generally have a right to represent themselves at trial. In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case Faretta v. California that the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution gives the defendants the right to act as their own lawyers. The decision reversed a California state court’s ruling that Anthony Faretta, a man accused of grand theft, had no such right.
The right to self-representation has limits, however. Under the standards laid out in the Faretta ruling and later cases, a defendant must fully understand his or her decision to proceed without a lawyer. The hearing Altman held Tuesday was a so-called Faretta hearing, in which he asked Zhang whether she understands every step of the trial process, which include choosing a jury, the rules that govern admitting evidence and the procedures for making objections.
The defendant must be found not to have any serious mental health issues. On that score, Altman took the word of Zhang’s public defenders, who said in a June 6 court filing that their client had no serious issues.
Under Faretta, judges must also warn defendants strongly against representing themselves. Defendants must be told that they will be expected to follow all the rules and procedures of the court and that no special allowances will be made for their lack of legal training.
Defendants who nonetheless press on without a lawyer must be allowed access to legal resources to prepare their defense. That could mean access to a prison law library, though in Zhang’s case, Altman ordered her former lawyers to give her law books to help prepare.
Though it is very rare for defendants to represent themselves in criminal cases, there have been several high-profile examples. John Allen Muhammad, the “Beltway sniper” behind a series of murders in the Washington area in 2002, and Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who carried out a deadly mass shooting in a church in North Carolina, both began their trials representing themselves, though both later changed their mind and brought in defense lawyers. Both were convicted and sentenced to death.
Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker