With jury selection in his trial set to begin today, Patrick Jason Stollar, who is charged with robbing and killing an elderly Upper St. Clair woman, has made a tactical decision that most lawyers say is extremely ill-advised. He is acting as his own lawyer in a death penalty case.
"There are risks involved when the best attorneys are trying a case," said John Rago, a criminal law professor at Duquesne University who heads a statewide commission on wrongful convictions.
Like any defendant, he said, Mr. Stollar has a constitutional right to represent himself.
"But if he's factually innocent, it's the worst thing he could be doing," he said. "I don't think there's anybody in America who thinks it's a good idea."
"The brain surgery of the legal profession is death penalty cases. It's not something any lawyer should do, much less a non-lawyer," said Richard Dieter, an adjunct professor at Catholic University Law School who runs the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
Experienced capital defense lawyers often work in pairs and spend a year preparing for trial. They interview witnesses, dig up records, do research, reinvestigate facts and locate experts.
The American Bar Association guidelines for taking on a death penalty case, the standard used by the U.S. Supreme Court and more than 50 state and federal courts, recommend hiring a licensed attorney with a commitment to "zealous advocacy," oral advocacy skills, complex negotiation and writing skills, expertise in fingerprints, ballistics, forensic pathology and DNA evidence, aptitude in presenting mental health evidence and trial advocacy skills, including jury selection, cross-examination of witnesses, opening statements and closing arguments.
Mr. Stollar, a former day laborer who has attempted suicide several times in jail, does not have a law degree.
It is very uncommon for defendants to represent themselves in capital cases, experts say.
Notable exceptions include Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti, who dressed like Tom Mix and tried to subpoena Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy at trial. Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, wanted to represent himself, but ended up taking a plea.
Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted of conspiracy in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, wanted to represent himself, but a judge appointed partial counsel and he got a life sentence. John Allen Muhammad, dubbed the "D.C. Sniper," let a standby lawyer take over in the midst of a Virginia trial. He got the death penalty.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered a new trial for a Moon man who was denied the right to defend himself in an Allegheny County case. Gary Starr said he wanted to expedite his 1988 trial for the death of his daughter and return to the general prison population so he could watch television again. He later pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and got a life sentence.
Attorney W. Christopher Conrad saw one complete "pro se" or "do-it-yourself" defense out of dozens of death penalty cases he tried for the Allegheny County district attorney's office. Purcell Bronson won a reprieve in the death of a prison inmate after the jury deadlocked, giving him a life sentence instead.
"In death penalty cases, that's usually what saves your life, the emotional and the sympathy factor. It's rarely based on something legal. The more you expose that person to the jury, if the person has redeeming qualities, the better the chances," Mr. Conrad said.
He said these cases are senstive for prosecutors and judges because "you don't want to seem like you're coming down on them all the time for not knowing rules of law and rules of evidence.
"One of the dangers is it looks like kangaroo court."
After reminding him repeatedly in November of his right to a lawyer, Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman granted Mr. Stollar, 29, the right to represent himself at trial in the 2003 death of Jean Heck, 78. He appointed Robert Foreman of the public defender's office as standby counsel in the first phase.
If a jury convicts Mr. Stollar of first-degree murder, attorney James DePasquale will represent him in the death penalty phase.
Gabrielle Banks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1370.