Inside the Courts

Defending himself is accused killer’s right, but is it wise?

Authorities say Keyoni Boderick was beaten to death by her father in 2012. Todd Boderick’s murder trial begins Monday. As of now, he plans to serve as his own attorney
Authorities say Keyoni Boderick was beaten to death by her father in 2012. Todd Boderick’s murder trial begins Monday. As of now, he plans to serve as his own attorney Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office

Todd Boderick appears to be putting his freedom in his own hands.

The 28-year-old Charlotte man is accused of beating his 6-month-old daughter to death in 2012. Prosecutors say Keyoni Boderick’s skull was crushed, as if stomped, and her ribs were repeatedly broken.

Her father’s first-degree murder case begins Monday. At the moment, Boderick plans to defend himself. During the months leading up to the trial, he has tried to dismiss every lawyer assigned to him.

As a self-described Moorish National, he has repeatedly challenged judicial authority. In 2013, Boderick had to be dragged into the courtroom to explain his latest request to have an attorney removed. Afterward, Superior Court Judge Richard Boner told the courtroom that he was thinking of starting a store: “Knuckleheads R Us,” he called it, leaving little doubt over his inspiration.

The stakes will be higher beginning Monday. If convicted, Boderick faces a mandatory life sentence without parole. He still could change his mind and ask for a lawyer. Or Superior Court Judge Robert Sumner could appoint a stand-by attorney to serve as a resource during the trial.

So-called “pro se” cases (that’s Latin for “on behalf of themselves”) have been a protected right since the start of the nation. George Washington signed the law. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of self-representation in a landmark 1975 case.

But many of those who work in the legal system believe such courtroom dramas pose a significant drain on court time, resources – and nerves. A current District Court candidate recently told me that the increase in pro se defendants is her biggest frustration with the Mecklenburg courts.

Boner says running a trial with no defense attorneys is an ordeal. “I’d rather undergo a root canal,” he says.

Rarely do self-defenders understand the rules of evidence and procedures. Frequently that leads to more objections from the prosecution and more reprimands from the judge. When arguments break out, there’s also the lost time of sending the jury out of the courtroom.

The challenge for a judge is that “you have to treat them like a trained attorney,” Boner says. “You can’t cut them any slack ... because that’s unfair to the other side.”

The results can be disastrous. Boner says he once charged a lawyer-less defendant with contempt of court after she continually ignored his orders on what to say and do. She was still in jail when the jury returned its guilty plea.

Defense attorney James Wyatt says he served as a stand-by attorney in a federal white-collar fraud case in which the defendant gradually surrendered the reins of his defense. But by that time, Wyatt had been unable to prepare, offer an opening statement or otherwise frame the case for the jury.

It’s impossible to predict Boderick’s next move.

Boner tells of a Guilford County defendant he heard about who wanted to fire his attorney on the opening day of his trial. “I talked to the Lord last night and he told me to be my own attorney,” the man explained.

The trial judge shot back: “Last night? Well, I talked to him this morning, and he wants you to keep your lawyer.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095