To represent oneself at trial or not. That is a question that most lawyers say is a no-brainer.
"It’s a trite colloquialism that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client," said William Dow III, a criminal defense lawyer in New Haven. It "sounds like the attorney here intends to present an object lesson to reaffirm the accuracy of that truism."
Dow is referring to former White House lawyer, John Michael Farren, who has decided to represent himself in a case where he is accused of trying to kill his former wife, Mary Margaret Farren, who is also an attorney, in the couple’s New Canaan home about three years ago.
John Michael Farren was general counsel at Xerox Corp. in 2007 when he was named deputy White House counsel during George W. Bush’s second term. He was previously undersecretary for international trade in the Commerce Department under Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush.
Police charged Farren for attacking his former wife with a metal flashlight the day after she served him with divorce papers. He has undergone psychiatric testing and has indicated his defense will be that he had a mental disease or defect at the time of the attack. Farren had retained two prominent attorneys to represent him — Eugene Riccio, of Bridgeport, and Timothy Moynahan, of Waterbury — but Farren told a judge the attorney-client relationship had turned "hostile."
Perhaps one point of tension is that Farren has lacked money to pay for his defense, a situation Farren has blamed on his wife denying him access to the couple’s funds.
Even though Farren acknowledged to Stamford Superior Court Judge Richard Comerford that he had never handled a criminal case before, he said he thought he could learn enough about criminal law to effectively represent himself. On April 12, Comerford officially decided to allow Farren defend himself, with Riccio and Moynahan serving as stand-by counsel.
To Dow, Farren "seems like a lawyer whose ego is disproportionate to the size of his pocketbook, i.e., a knucklehead with no money whose self-importance dwarfs his wallet."
In his role as his own defense attorney, Farren will be in a position to cross-examine his ex-wife, the woman he is charged with trying to kill. Shipman & and Goodwin lawyer James Bergenn said that face-off could be a "disaster."
"Can’t win that cross" in the eyes of the jury, Bergenn said.
No trial date has been set.
A former public defender in Connecticut for 33 years, the now-retired Robert Field said that "cross-examination of one’s own wife can be very tough as everyone in the courtroom will be examining every single body movement or facial expression or emotion that is elicited by questions. Testifying for oneself is also difficult — does the lawyer ask himself a question and then answer it? If he just recounts a story, the state may object that it is being denied the right to make objections in a timely fashion."
Field added that the "most troubling aspect" is the nature of Farren’s intended defense.
"Trying to establish a mental disease or illness which rendered one unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of one’s conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law, and presenting the case yourself is particularly burdensome," Fields said. "A judge or a jury will be constantly perceiving the defendant the way he is acting in court as an attorney in front of them each day, and it may be hard to think of him acting very different with a mental illness at the time of the alleged offense."
Milford criminal defense lawyer, John Walkley, is skeptical that Farren can learn enough about criminal procedure to be effective at trial. Walkley said that he was standby counsel for a lawyer, Leslie Barth, who was on trial in the early 1990s for wire fraud and related crimes. "It did not go well," Walkley said.
In 2004, Barth was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison in Bridgeport by U.S. District Judge Alan H. Nevas.
"He was an able attorney," Walkley said. "But he was not a criminal lawyer."
Walkley added: "The big thing is, you are going to be asking witnesses about you. Anytime a lawyer starts injecting himself, it’s odd." Equally odd, said Walkley, would be the defendant questioning himself if he takes the stand to testify. "I think the jury is going to look at that and everything is going to seem self-serving."
Finally, Walkley questioned whether the defendant’s judgment will most likely be clouded by his emotions. "I don’t know how you can think of things in a clear way," Walkley said.
Beyond the Barth case, the lawyers interviewed could not remember any other instances in Connecticut where an attorney facing such serious charges represented himself. Though, Dow said, "I do seem to recall that Clarence Darrow might have tried this once, and maybe also F. Lee Bailey."
Bailey, who defended Patty Hearst, represented himself in a $4 million tax case against the Internal Revenue Service. He ultimately won part of the case and lost other aspects. Darrow, who defended John Scopes, charged with teaching evolution, was his own lawyer in a case of attempting to bribe jurors, which resulted in a hung jury. •