A lawyer representing himself, the saying goes, has a fool for a client. So what of a physician who decides to represent himself in a high-stakes criminal case? Is he, too, a fool?
Dr. Lishan Wang is charged with murder. He is alleged to have shot to death another physician, Dr. Vajinder Pal Toor, in Branford in 2010. The motive? Dr. Wang's suspicion that Dr. Toor had something to do with Dr. Wang's being fired at the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn back in 2008, a move Dr. Wang appears to believe ruined his medical career.
If Dr. Wang were a better shot, he'd be facing the death penalty. He's accused of also trying to kill Dr. Toor's wife, but she survived. It was a death penalty offense in Connecticut in 2010 to kill two or more people in the same transaction or occurrence. Instead, Dr. Wang faces up to 60 years in prison.
Most folks facing charges of this sort rely on a lawyer. If you can't afford a lawyer, the state appoints one for you, a public defender. Some of the best criminal defense lawyers in the state are public defenders, and, for my money, the best group of public defenders in Connecticut is in New Haven, the jurisdiction in which Dr. Wang will be tried.
Despite his credentials, Dr. Wang qualifies for a public defender. The current income limits for eligibility are as follows, according to a website maintained by the public defenders' office: You qualify if you are charged with a felony and have no dependents and your gross income, the amount you make before the taxman takes a bite out of you, is no more than $22,980. If you have a wife and two children, or three dependents, the eligibility threshold for a felony charge is $47,100. The eligibility thresholds for a misdemeanor charge are $17,235 for a person without dependents, and $35,325 for a person with three dependents.
Getting a public defender is a good deal. Not only do you get a first-rate lawyer, the office is obliged to assure that you get the assistance of investigators and expert witnesses, if necessary. It's all part and parcel of assuring the accused gets a fair trial and has a fighting chance of countering the resources the state will devote to prosecuting a serious offense.
But Dr. Wang marches to his own drummer, as is his right. He does not want a public defender. He has decided, for reasons all his own, to represent himself. From afar, the move looks like sheer madness: It makes about as much sense as a layperson deciding to perform surgery upon himself.
Indeed, in an unusual move, the court early in his case held a hearing to determine whether Dr. Wang is legally competent to stand trial. A superior court judge ruled that the doctor appeared able to understand the nature of the charges against him and was able to assist in his own defense. That's not saying all that much, in point of fact: the standard for competency is very, very low.
To assist him with courtroom procedure and to be prepared to jump in and to take charge in the event the good doctor comes to his senses, the court has appointed standby counsel, a public defender. Think of standby counsel as a tutor the doctor is free to rely upon or ignore. Dr. Wang remains in charge of his own case, selecting the defense strategy, deciding what witnesses to call, and how to cross-examine the state's witnesses.
Pro se (pronounced "pro say") defendants are a nightmare for the judicial system. Not all facts are relevant to prove a point, and some facts simply don't matter, given what is at issue. Experienced and trained lawyers often disagree about what is relevant and material. Trial judges make evidentiary rulings to keep the proceedings on target. When the trial judge errs, appellate courts can order new trials. Trial is a thicket, an ungodly mess, a madhouse in which even the sane can lose their way.
What is the court to do with Dr. Wang? He's already signaled his intention to try to put Dr. Toor on trial, somehow reasoning that if he can show that he was mistreated in a Brooklyn hospital the crime he's been charged with might, well, what, disappear? The fact is that Dr. Toor could have cost Dr. Wang his job -- it neither justifies nor excuses killing Dr. Toor.
It's thinking like this that makes Dr. Wang look like a reckless navigator.
He's also filed a motion in court to request permission to hire the "famed forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee." And he may need a psychiatrist or two on board, if he plans to offer a defense of mental disease or defect at trial.
Who should pay for all the bells and whistles Dr. Wang wants? He has rejected the representation of a public defender. Apparently, he lacks the means to hire a private lawyer.
Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court ruled that the public defenders' office must buy him the investigators and experts he thinks he needs.
The reasoning makes perfect sense, even if it is maddening. If Dr. Wang has a right to represent himself, then, it follows, he should also have the right to present an effective defense. That means getting him the help he'll need.
But he's no lawyer, and odds are he'll make a publicly supported mess of his own case.
Here we have a doctor representing himself against an accusation of murder. Serious enough questions about his judgment have arisen to require a competency hearing. While he's been deemed competent, he appears to have little comprehension of the law of evidence and what is and is not admissible in his own defense. He seems intent on transforming his murder trial into some sort of pity party to mourn the scientific career he thinks Dr. Toor destroyed.
How much of this goofiness will the public defenders' office be required to underwrite? Plenty, I suspect. Trial will be quite a show.