The past few weeks have brought the Tampa legal system into the national conversation as people watch the bizarre and gruesome trial of Ronnie Oneal III.
Oneal is charged with killing his girlfriend and disabled 9-year-old daughter as well as stabbing and setting his 8-year-old son on fire. Oneal has chosen to act as his own lawyer which has turned the already difficult case into a trial that is at times dramatic and bizarre.
It also highlights the problems that can arise when a defendant seeks to represent themselves in a criminal defense case.
Can You Represent Yourself in a Criminal Defense Case?
Yes, a criminal defendant has the legal right to represent herself or himself in court.
A public defender will be assigned to a defendant who cannot afford to hire a criminal defense attorney on their own, but defendants can exercise their right to self-representation and be “Pro-Se.”
Pro-Se defendants can represent themselves in a criminal defense case if they can show the Judge their decision was made knowingly, intelligently, voluntarily, and with awareness of the general dangers of self-representation. The defendant must also be deemed mentally competent in order to waive the right to counsel.
Why Could Oneil Represent Himself in Court?
Oneal had public attorneys representing him for three years. Shortly before the trial, he decided he wanted to go at it alone.
In 2018, Oneal was declared incompetent. He was removed from jail and spent time in a state hospital. But, more recent mental health exams deemed that he could proceed with the case and represent himself.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Assistant State Attorney Ronald Gale told the Judge that “prosecutors did not believe Oneal was suffering from any severe mental illness based on available psychological reports and evaluations.”
The Judge conducted a Faretta inquiry, which included a series of questions to determine if Oneal was fit to lead his own case. Despite a bizarre exchange during the questioning, the judge approved Oneal’s request to represent himself.
Should You Represent Yourself in Criminal Court?
Representing yourself in court, especially criminal court where the stakes are very high, is almost always a bad decision.
In almost all cases, you should have an attorney represent you in a criminal case.
The Benefits of a Defense Attorney
Having an attorney on your side during a criminal case has a variety of benefits.
An attorney protects your rights. Even in criminal cases as horrific as the Oneal case, defendants deserve the right to a fair trial. An attorney ensures that all procedures are properly followed and that a defendant’s rights are protected throughout the case.
An attorney ensures court compliance. The court system is made up of specific processes that must be followed. Failing to follow these complicated compliance rules (for things as small as filing the wrong paperwork or filing paperwork at the wrong time) can negatively affect your case.
An attorney can identify compliance failures on the other side. Both the defense and the prosecution must follow compliance rules. An attorney can catch failures to meet compliance on the other side which can help your case.
An attorney can build better arguments and negotiate plea deals. An experienced attorney knows what to expect in criminal cases. They can use their experience to create more compelling arguments. They may also have relationships that can lead to better plea deals and negotiations for lesser charges and consequences.
An attorney protects the story in high-profile cases. Cases like Oneal are often tried in the media before the results are heard in the court. It’s important to have an attorney for a high-profile case as they can stay ahead of the story in the media and ensure that the defendant’s rights are preserved and protected.
An attorney can keep emotions out of the case. It can be very difficult to keep emotions out of a case if you are defending yourself. In the Oneal case, emotions were high as Oneal cross-examined his son he is accused of setting on fire. An attorney can take the reins on a case that is often too close to the defendant.
Don’t Go at It Alone in a Defense Case
If you have been accused and charged with a criminal charge, you should seek representation rather than represent yourself. An attorney can fight for your best interest if you have been charged with:
- Theft and property crimes
- Traffic citations
- Drug offenses
- Sex offenses
- Violent crimes
- Weapons offenses
Whether you are innocent or guilty, representing yourself in criminal court is always a huge risk. Don’t take this unnecessary risk and instead, find an attorney you can trust to guide you through the process and lead you to the best possible outcome.
If you have an upcoming criminal case, contact TJ Grimaldi to get a free consultation about your case today. Request your consultation or call 813-226-1023.