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Self defense just got easier for inmates
Seattle Times staff reporter
With no formal legal training, Richard Allan Case was at a clear disadvantage when he decided to defend himself in court against a first-degree- murder charge.
Like other King County Jail inmates, Case — who had already gone through several public defenders — had limited access to law books, research materials, even copies of his case documents. To prepare to act as his own attorney, he relied on a single roving laptop shared by more than 1,000 inmates and the services of the busy King County Library System.
But last month, things got easier for Case and other inmates in the county jail. The county's Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) on March 1 began contracting with Westlaw, an online legal-research database used by King County prosecutors and lawyers around the country, to provide services to inmates who have chosen to be "pro se," the Latin term for representing oneself in court without a lawyer.
Pro se inmates can get up to four hours a week of computer time, system training and unlimited online access to state and federal court cases, statutes, legal opinions, periodicals and free telephone support.
The new system will likely cost the county more money, at least in the beginning, though it's difficult to tell how much because the program is not fully implemented.
The DAJD in 2006 has spent about $69,000 on computers, servers, building setup and subscription costs to make Westlaw available at one computer station inside the King County Correctional Facility in Seattle and one station inside the Regional Justice Center in Kent, according to jail spokesman Troy Bacon.
The number doesn't include some staff time used to help set up and run the system.
The goal is to substantially expand the program soon, to as many as 10 jail computer stations in Seattle and four in Kent.
In 2005, under the old King County library contract, the DAJD spent nearly $84,000 for legal services (including staff, materials and supplies) for inmates at both jails.
Administrators say the new program is a necessity at a time pro se defense appears to be on the rise and recent court decisions and new rules have clarified and strengthened the rights of inmates to access legal resources.
There are typically 20 to 25 pro se inmates in the King County system at any given time, an increase in recent years, he said. "To manage the number of requests, it has administratively increased our costs quite a bit."
Neither the county nor the state keeps official count of how many people choose to defend or represent themselves, and there are no reliable national statistics, according to the National Center for State Courts, which has looked at the issue.
Observers agree, however, that the practice is increasing. Though it's much more common for people to represent themselves in civil matters, such as family-law cases, criminal defendants also choose to go pro se. Many choose to represent themselves in the civil arena to save money; criminal defendants often go through one or more public defenders before choosing to act as their own attorney.
Pro se defendants' rights are protected through laws and court rules. Judges also often appoint standby counsel to advise or step in if the defendant founders.
In Washington, a 2001 state appellate-court decision, State v. Silva, reaffirmed the rights of pro se inmates to the resources necessary to prepare an adequate defense.
Recent state court-rule revisions also addressed how people seeking to represent themselves can obtain limited legal services, such as the "ghostwriting" of their documents by attorneys.
By March 2005, Case — who is accused of the January 2003 killing of his girlfriend, a witness in a hit-and-run accident in which Case was a suspect — had decided to represent himself. Since then, he has submitted carefully handwritten legal documents, some more than a dozen pages long, as part of his defense.
His case is scheduled to go to trial in King County Superior Court this spring.
The new Westlaw contract in King County seeks to combat one of the biggest problems Case and others face in going pro se: the lack of legal knowledge that can result in a bad defense.
"Operating without counsel is risky business," said King County public defender David Hocraffer.
The King County Office of the Public Defender provides many of the same services — including legal research and investigators — to pro se defendants as it does for those assigned a public defender.
"The same standard applies," Hocraffer said. Defendants such as Case are making good use of the new system, Hayes said. "The guys who take it seriously are pretty focused. Some of these guys are very bright people."
Inmates can schedule time in a designated legal-research room, and the system is fairly self-explanatory.
Under the old library contract, inmates were required to send every document and research request through a library staff person, who would respond as soon as possible — sometime not for days — with requested printouts.
Staff members also would bring a single roving laptop on a cart to inmates throughout the jail.
Hayes said that in the long run, the new system could cost less than the old one because it reduces administrative work and is more user-friendly. "But the courts are forcing us to go this way, so we don't have much choice in the matter."
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company