Jeff Jardine: Self-defense rarely best defense in Stanislaus County criminal trials

jjardine@modbee.comDecember 14, 2013 

— You could say Nicholas Lamb has a gambling problem.

Upon his arrest in February 2012, he admitted to Stanislaus County sheriff’s Detective David Hickman that gambling losses preceded the robberies of two banks in Stanislaus County, including one in Patterson twice. Another robbery attempt, at a Modesto Walmart, failed because the clerk just said “no” when he handed her a note demanding cash. Lamb also confessed to robberies or attempts in Kern, Santa Clara, San Luis Obispo and San Joaquin counties, Hickman said.

Then Lamb gambled again in a much different way. Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Meghan Greerty and prosecutors from the other counties offered Lamb a deal through his public defender: Plead guilty to the crimes in this county, accept a sentence of seven years and eight months, less time served and credits for good behavior while in jail, and the other counties wouldn’t prosecute. His attorney urged Lamb to accept the deal.

Lamb, however, wanted to go before a jury. He believed that, if nothing else, he could minimize his sentence. After all, he’s 34, intelligent and well-spoken, with some college education. He’d worked as a finance agent in automobile and recreational vehicle dealerships before being laid off a few years ago, he said, because of the economy. He had plenty of time in jail to prepare for the case, and the law requires the public to pay for an investigator to help him. He also would be involved in the peremptory challenge element of jury selection.

During the arraignment and pretrial processes, Lamb came to the conclusion that he could hold his own against the youthful-looking Greerty, who has been prosecuting cases in this county for six years. After all, the DAs have big caseloads. He figured he’d know the facts of the case better than she possibly could because he was there for all four crimes and she wasn’t. So he filed a motion telling the court he would serve as his own attorney, which, in legalese, is called pro per.

What he didn’t know is that she’s gotten convictions against four others who took the same risk by opting to defend themselves. What she can’t understand is why she keeps getting pro per cases.

“I do have the office record,” she said. “They (pro per cases) are extremely rare.”

Her previous pro per cases involved elder abuse, spousal abuse, exhibiting a weapon other than a firearm and one involving primarily misdemeanor counts. Lamb was the first to defend himself against felony charges entirely. Felonies are more serious crimes that carry longer sentences.

“They all really believe they are best able to tell their story,” Greerty said. “The judge advises them (against it). But it’s something they really want to do.”

Judge Ricardo Córdova advised Lamb against self-representation. So did Judge Valli Israels, who ultimately presided over the trial.

Trying a pro per case is different because there are times when Greerty would be talking to the defendant directly instead of a trained legal counsel who understands every step of the procedure. Judges, meanwhile, must make sure the case is conducted properly and won’t come back on appeal because of judicial error.

Such cases aren’t easy, Greerty said. Yes, she needs to present evidence to get the conviction. But treat the defendant as a crook and humiliate him as a rookie attorney, and there’s a risk of creating sympathy among the jurors.

“You don’t want to come off like a bully,” she said.

At the same time, the last thing an educated, practicing prosecutor wants is to lose a case to a rank amateur.

“As a prosecutor, there are unique challenges to pro per,” she said. “Absolutely, there’s lots of pressure (to win). At the same time, I like that the people have the right ... to use their constitutional right to defend themselves.”

Defendants, of course, don’t feel much empathy.

“It’s very adversarial,” Lamb said. “It’s like, ‘I’m not going to give you legal advice.’ 

Some pro pers handle themselves better in court than others. Greerty said one defendant referred to herself in third person throughout the trial, as if she were actually defending someone other than herself.

Lamb said some family members cautioned him about representing himself. “They say that anyone who represents himself has a fool for a client,” Lamb said during a recent interview at the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center.

But others, he said, encouraged him. “My aunt said, ‘He can do it. I’ve got faith in him,’ ” Lamb said.

The trial began in October, and Lamb said he became more acclimated by the day.

“Some of my objections were getting sustained,” Lamb said. He also felt he scored points while cross-examining witnesses over statements made early in the investigation that he said were different from what they said in court.

Lamb did a credible job, Greerty said. “It was like, ‘Hey, you should have been an attorney,’ ” Greerty said. “ ‘You’d have been really good at this.’ 

But reality hit when the jury returned after deliberating for only a couple of hours, bringing back guilty verdicts on all counts. And during his sentencing last week, his decision to reject the multicounty plea deal and go to trial here proved to be a mistake.

Israels sentenced him to five years, eight months. With jail good conduct credits and time served, Lamb will do roughly 2½ years of state prison time on the Stanislaus County convictions. But now he faces trials in as many as four other counties, Greerty said.

“The deal he opted not to take is off,” she said. “I know of warrants for his arrest in at least three of the other counties.”

Meaning prosecutors in those counties will be lining up to try him, handed a confession and a blueprint for victory from the Stanislaus County case. Each conviction elsewhere likely will result in more prison time, and the total could easily surpass the time offered in the deal.

A gamble lost.

Know a good attorney?

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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