Risky business: Some Capitol riot defendants forgo lawyers

Capitol Breach Self Representation

Some of the defendants charged in the storming of the U.S. Capitol are turning away defense lawyers and electing to represent themselves, undeterred by their lack of legal training or repeated warnings from judges.

That choice already has led to some curious legal maneuvers and awkward exchanges in court.

A New York man charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection wants to bill the government for working on his own case. A Pennsylvania restaurant owner is trying to defend herself from jail. A judge told another New Yorker that he may have incriminated himself during courtroom arguments.

The right to self-representation is a bedrock principle of the Constitution. But a longtime judge cited an old adage in advising a former California police chief that he would have “a fool for a client” if he represented himself.

And Michael Magner, a New Orleans criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, observed, “Just because you have a constitutional right to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s smart.”

The decision by at least five defendants to defend themselves is bound to create a host of challenges, particularly for those behind bars. They risk getting themselves in more legal trouble if they say the wrong thing in court. They have to sift through the mountain of evidence investigators have collected in the attack. And the strategy is already testing judges’ ability to maintain control of their courtrooms.

“I would never represent myself if I were charged with a crime,” U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth told Alan Hostetter before allowing him to handle his own defense against riot charges. The judge warned the ex-police chief that he has never seen anyone successfully represent himself since his appointment to the bench in 1987.

Hostetter was arrested in June along with five other men on charges that they conspired to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. The indictment links four of Hostetter's co-defendants to the Three Percenters, a wing of the militia movement.

Hostetter, who began teaching yoga after more than 20 years as an officer, told Lamberth that the “corruption of this investigation” is one reason he wants to represent himself. His finances also were a factor.

“I believe that it's a governmental strategy and tactic that if they can't convict you, they at least want to bankrupt and destroy you,” Hostetter said.

Another defendant representing himself, Brandon Fellows of upstate New York,