North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 85, No. 2 (January 2007), pp. 423-487

Abstract

Why would a criminal defendant waive the right to counsel and proceed pro se? Conventional wisdom assumes that there is no good reason for a defendant to choose self-representation, and those who make that choice are therefore either mentally ill or foolish. Courtroom proceedings in cases of high-profile pro se defendants like Colin Ferguson and, more recently, Zacarias Moussaoui and John Muhammad, have only increased the dominance of this prevailing view. Even the Supreme Court has assumed that the right of self-representation in practice hurts, rather than helps, criminal defendants. Until now, however, no empirical study has examined the phenomenon of self-representation.

This Article presents the results of the first study of pro se felony defendants. The data undermine both the assumption that most felony pro se defendants are ill-served by the decision to self-representation and the theory that most pro se defendants suffer from mental illness. Somewhat surprisingly, the data indicate that pro se felony defendants in state courts are convicted at rates equivalent to or lower than the conviction rates of represented felony defendants, and the vast majority of pro se felony defendants--nearly 80%--did not display outward signs of mental illness.