When Abusers Play Lawyer, They Can Take Their Victims Down With Them

May 9, 2018 at 6:00 am
"He who represents himself," the saying goes, "has a fool for a client."
"He who represents himself," the saying goes, "has a fool for a client." PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY TOM CARLSON

On a mid-April afternoon, two teenage girls wait on the twelfth floor of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse to testify against a man accused of sexually abusing them.

The man will be there, of course. The U.S. Constitution guarantees his right to confront his accusers, and the former pastor has made it clear that he plans to take full advantage. Not only will he be in the courtroom, he has decided to act as his own lawyer, a surprise he unveiled just nine days before trial when he shucked aside his private attorneys.

Going pro se, as the courts call it, is almost surely a bad move in terms of legal strategy, but it allows the man certain freedoms. Specifically, he now has the power to personally cross-examine his alleged victims.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Winfield had previously raised concerns with the judge about what he might do. The nature of the child pornography case was sure to be hard enough on the teens without their alleged abuser standing in front of them, firing questions. As a way of blunting any possible intimidation, she asked that the man, 49-year-old Loren Copp, be ordered to stay in his seat on the other side of the courtroom while the girls are on the stand.

"The government is just hoping to avoid any type of harassment," Winfield said during a pretrial hearing, later adding, "The issue is traumatizing the victims all over again."

Courts and lawmakers across the world have struggled with this type of situation and come to a variety of conclusions. British courts, for example, forbid defendants in sex assault cases from directly questioning people they are accused of harming. In this country, the courts have found that defendants have a right to cross-examine witnesses in all but the rarest of circumstances. Still, the majority of states have passed laws limiting the ability of pro se defendants in sex crime cases involving kids to cross-examine young witnesses. Missouri has not.

Michael Wolff, former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, says the responsibility for safeguarding a vulnerable witness typically falls to the trial judge, who is in charge of decorum in the courtroom.

"What you're really talking about is setting up a victim to be traumatized or victimized in the courtroom, and we rely on the trial judge get ahold of the situation," says Wolff, now dean emeritus of Saint Louis University Law School.

The St. Louis case, which is waiting on a verdict after testimony wrapped up in federal court two weeks ago, is an ugly one. Copp, who lived in a converted church where he ran a karate studio and restaurant called Dojo Pizza, is accused of abusing young girls who moved in with him when they had nowhere else to go. Their mothers were on drugs, homeless or incarcerated. Yet instead of protecting the girls, prosecutors say Copp photographed and videotaped them when they were naked. He relied on twisted methods of manipulation, going so far as to create a fake Facebook profile of a thirteen-year-old, which he used to catfish the girls and lure them into sexualized games of truth or dare. In some cases, according to prosecutors, he molested girls or coerced them into sex acts.

Two sisters had lived with Copp so long they called him dad, and he told people they were his daughters. The eldest, now nineteen, claims he started coercing her into sexual intercourse when she was maybe eleven.

The nineteen-year-old is one of the girls who has agreed to testify against her former father figure. U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig has taken steps to protect her identity (anyone who witnesses her testimony is forbidden from publicizing her name under threat of contempt of court) but there is little to be done about the cross-examination. Fleissig has a duty to protect Copp's Sixth Amendment rights and ensure he receives a fair trial. As a compromise, Fleissig orders him to stay at his table during questioning, but she does allow him to stand.

When the nineteen-year-old enters, she avoids looking in Copp's direction as she makes her way up a ramp to the witness stand. Copp follows her with his eyes and stares while Winfield runs through 30 minutes of questions. The teen turns away from him.

During a break, the U.S. Marshals lead Copp out of a side door on her end of the courtroom. She keeps her chin to her chest, glancing up just once as he shuffles within a few feet of her, the shackles around his ankles clinking together.

When they return, it is Copp's turn.

click to enlarge Edward 'Texas' Moore represented himself following his arrest in an attack at Carr School. - ST. LOUIS POLICE/DOYLE MURPHY
Edward 'Texas' Moore represented himself following his arrest in an attack at Carr School.

In 2010, a vicious child rapist named Salvador Aleman Cruz was on trial in Seattle. Whereas Copp is accused of using manipulation and grooming to abuse his victims, Cruz used violence and sheer terror. The 40-year-old used to force the daughters of a girlfriend to have sex with him, and he beat and threatened to murder them if they told. Prosecutors said it was part of a pattern and that Cruz raped an unknown number of children over the years.

The abuse covered in the trial happened more than a dozen years before. The victims were now adults and had not seen Cruz for years by the time he was finally arrested and hauled into court. But they were still terrified.

"Now, this monster of their early lives had come back, and they had to face him again," recalls King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Val Richey, who prosecuted the case.

Like Copp, Cruz decided to represent himself. Given his sadistic history, the victims anticipated an excruciating cross-examination if they testified. Richey says they agreed to do so anyway because they knew it was the only way to keep him from hurting more little girls in the future.

As the time to take the stand approached, one of the women seemed especially unsettled. The resurrection of years of childhood terror was so traumatizing for the 21-year-old that Richey made the game-time decision not to put her on the stand. As he prepared for court that day, she texted him that she was on the roof of the courthouse. A photo she sent in a follow-up message showed her feet dangling off the edge.

Richey raced up the stairs and found her threatening to jump. He talked with her until a police negotiator took over. After three hours, the woman finally agreed to come down and was taken to the hospital for an evaluation.

While she never testified, her sisters did. Cruz was predictably merciless. "He would cross-examine them for hours and hours," Richey recalls. "The trial was seven weeks."

Ultimately, his cruelty did him in.

"The reality is, for the jury, all his actions were sealing his fate," the prosecutor says.

It is the paradox of a vindictive pro se defendant: Their tactics can hurt their defense, but they inflict pain on their way down.

Cruz was convicted of multiple counts of child rape and sentenced to 53 years in prison. The case motivated Washington lawmakers to propose a bill that would limit the ability of defendants in sex assault cases to cross-examine alleged victims. The legislation, which extended beyond child victims to adults, would have been the first of its kind in the U.S. Richey, a supporter, testified in favor of the bill in front of state legislators. He says abusers can manipulate the system to terrorize victims one last time.

"You commonly see pro se defendants that are interested in exercising control over their victims," he tells the Riverfront Times in a phone interview.

The bill never passed into law. State judges convinced lawmakers they would set their own rules to deal with the situations. Seven years after Cruz's conviction, Richey says he is still waiting.

People decide to represent themselves in court for all sorts of reasons.

Some, like Cruz, are clearly wicked, and like the idea of toying with their victims. Others may be simply overconfident — a condition that affects even people who should know better.

click to enlarge Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. - ALICE LINAHAN/VOICES EMPOWER/CC BY-SA 2.0
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

This spring, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach brazenly (and disastrously) decided to defend himself when the American Civil Liberties Union sued over his legally questionable voter ID law.

Kobach, an occasional Trump adviser, is seen on the right as the scholarly architect of hardline immigration policies. In court, however, he and his legal team struggled in cringe-worthy ways with the basics of evidence and cross-examination. In one lowlight that made the rounds on Twitter, Team Kobach filed what was apparently a draft of a motion complete with typos (a note next to one of his points read "PROBABLY NOT WORTH ARGUING"). In the end, the ACLU lawyers not only whipped him on his signature voter ID law, they won legal fees from Kobach when he was found in contempt of court during a follow-up skirmish.

Missouri State Public Defender Director Michael Barrett says the pro se defendants his staff sees tend to be of a less grandiose variety. They are almost always poor and doing their best to fight their way out of bad situations.

In Missouri, like other states, criminal defendants facing felony charges can qualify for a free lawyer if they meet certain income standards. The problem for a lot of would-be clients, Barrett says, is that they aren't quite poor enough to qualify under Missouri's guidelines, which are among the stingiest in the country. Judges also have wide discretion over appointing lawyers, and practices vary widely from one jurisdiction to the other.

Some judges think public defenders pick up too many cases. Others only want a lawyer there to speed defendants through clogged dockets, Barrett says.

"They want an illusion where they want the cardboard cutout of an attorney sitting next to him," he says.

click to enlarge Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System. - STATE OF MISSOURI
Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System.

Choosing just one jurisdiction, Barrett's staff reviewed nearly 50 cases over three years in Warren County to see what happened to defendants who were denied public defenders because they did not meet state income qualifications. Few appear to have found another attorney, and an overwhelming majority pleaded guilty. The informal review did not find a single defendant who was acquitted.

"They are definitely falling through the cracks," Barrett says.

Edward "Texas" Moore, a homeless man charged in a bloody hammer attack in St. Louis last year, considered his limited options for attorneys and decided he would prefer to go it alone. In a brace of motions filed since he was locked up in July, the 62-year-old argues that public defenders have too many cases and too few resources to properly work his case.

He is facing eight felony charges. St. Louis police say Moore attacked three other homeless people who were sleeping in the crumbling Carr School north of downtown because he thought they'd ransacked his belongings. When another man tried to intervene, Moore smashed him, too, according to authorities.

Moore says he will need an investigator to gather depositions and at least two experts — one to testify about the effects of getting hit with a linear object and the other about how alcohol and drug use affect memory.

"Furthermore, the State's failure to make available to Defendant one red cent of the millions of dollars appropriated for the defense of indigents accused of crimes is an obvious denial of the equal protection of the law," he writes in a motion filed last fall.

More recently, Moore has argued the case should be dismissed because the courts have ignored his right to a speedy trial. He announced within months of his arrest that he was ready for court and now says the delays are hurting him. He has put on 30 pounds because of the starchy jailhouse meals. His witnesses and evidence could be disappearing. And he is in chronic pain because he cannot get the pain relievers and digestive aids he was prescribed on the outside, he says.

"Moreover, March 15, 2018 the jail delivered sleep-deprivation the coup de grace," Moore writes, "by moving into Defendant's cell inmate Phillip Cutler, a notorious world-class snorer, both in terms of frequency and volume, thus insuring that Defendant never gets more than an hour or two of uninterrupted sleep and quite possibly not more than an hour or two of sleep altogether during any given 24-hour period."

He now has a trial date in June.