Theodore Kaczynski has the right to defend himself without legal representation. Is he competent to do so? He thinks so. But Judge Garland Burrell, Jr. has already prevented the man accused in the Unabomber trial from firing his attorneys and directing their defense of him. Kaczynski has since asked to defend himself, without counsel, and agreed to a competency examination.
Various legal analysts question a judge’s right to allow a lawyer to pursue an insanity defense against a defendant’s wishes, as Kaczynski’s attorneys plan to do. Other critics feel allowing him to defend himself is a form of federally-assisted suicide. Prosecutors worry a possible conviction could be overturned by an appeals court and argue that Kaczynski has the right to fire his lawyers and defend himself. But even if Kaczynski passes the competency exam, in which he must meet the minimum standards of adult awareness to stand trial, the question remains whether he can adequately defend himself in a court of law, especially in a capital case.
Any competent person accused of a crime would want to mount the best possible defense. Most people know they need a lawyer to navigate the savage waters of litigation. But defendants should also have the right to fire lawyers who can’t or won’t follow their instructions. In Kaczynski’s case, his lawyers felt that the best possible defense was insanity. The attorneys seem to believe the criminal case unwinnable — an insanity plea is all but an admission of guilt — but the death penalty avoidable. Kaczynski, for his part, maintains his innocence and objects to any defense other than “I didn’t do it.”
He is fighting for both his liberty and his life. Given the weight of the prosecution’s evidence so far, an insanity defense might be the strongest possible case. But now the only way Kaczynski can veto his own attorneys — and perhaps to maintain his integrity — is to fire them and defend himself. Kaczynski is a highly intelligent man, and despite his history of unusual behavior, he seems intent on convincing the court that he is competent and sane. If he proves competent, he must be allowed to make decisions central to his own defense. He must be allowed to defend himself. Judge Burrell should do what he can to persuade Kaczynski against this foolish and possibly suicidal course.
Burrell must also ensure that Kaczynski’s defense of himself doesn’t disrupt the trial. Colin Ferguson, the Long Island railroad shooter, used his self-defended trial to again terrorize his victims. Kaczynski should not be allowed to turn his trial into a circus or a political soapbox. And Kaczynski will take his act on the road, considering that it will take several trials in a number of states to cover the 16 bombings blamed on the Unabomber campaign. Any steps taken to prevent inappropriate defense tactics are warranted — as long as these steps do not infringe on Kaczynski’s rights. This includes his right not to offer an insanity defense.
If Kaczynski is stripped of his rights to protect himself in court, everyone’s rights will have been eroded. An insanity defense could be his only shot at avoiding the death penalty, but it’s his shot to make.