They say that “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” With a 2-hour guilty verdict in a trial that lasted 31 days, the old adage rings true.
Michel Escoto, a Miami man accused of murdering his wife of 4 days so that he could collect a $1 million life insurance policy, spent nearly the entirety of the trial representing himself. He was arrested back in 2005 and has been representing himself throughout most of the pre-trial process. Even at the trial level, Escoto refused the assistance of his court-appointed “backup” lawyer, believing that only he knew the facts well enough to successfully gain an acquittal.
He was wrong.
The problem with self-representation is exactly that. It’s like doing anything yourself...you’re not the expert! In front of a jury, a self-represented defendant appears as someone who thinks they know it all. Somebody who can do a better job than a trained, educated, and experienced attorney. That unspoken fact can resonate with jurors. It also gives the defendant too much exposure to the jury. The defendant asks the questions, makes the arguments. Sometimes the best thing for a defendant to do is nothing at all. Sit still, keep a straight fact, and let your lawyer do their job.
Escoto appeared arrogant and even belligerent during the trial, at one point being held in contempt of court for threatening a witness. Things like this do not escape the jurors’ minds. They see “the real you.” The you that you may not want the jury to know about.
The defendant was accused of a violent crime. When he began threatening the witness, the jurors saw firsthand just how violent this man could be. If a seasoned attorney were asking the questions, the jury never would have seen this side of the accused.
The evidence against Escoto was pretty strong so I’m not sure if a trained lawyer would have fared better. However, a 2-hour guilty verdict after 31 days of testimony meant that the jurors had zero doubt as to the defendant’s guilt. They probably spent more time electing a foreperson than they did actually deliberating.
Since Escoto was convicted of first-degree murder, the judge must impose a mandatory life sentence.
Eric Matheny is a Miami criminal defense attorney and Broward criminal defense attorney.