At some point in the development of the American criminal justice system, somebody decided that it was a good idea to provide defendants with library resource materials so they could either defend themselves or assist their trained criminal defense attorneys in defending them. Without putting too fine a point on it, it is my personal opinion that this has turned out to be one of the stupidest things any attorney or judge ever thought of, for the following reasons.
No Legal Training – Let’s start with the most obvious points. Most criminal defendants have no formal legal training. Understanding the contents of a statute, case, or legal treatise is simply beyond their ability. Most defendants who spend their days in the prison library refuse to acknowledge that it is virtually impossible to read and understand legal materials without formal legal training. My experience with clients who perform their own research and write their own briefs has revealed repeatedly that a defendant will, for example, latch onto an isolated phrase in a particular source because the few words at issue seem to advance their cause; however, they almost invariably take the isolated quote out of its larger context. When read as part of the larger case or statute, it becomes clear that the phrase lacks the meaning contemplated by the defendant, and therefore does little – if anything – to improve their position.
No Knowledge of Court Rules – But the problems go far beyond this. Defendants also do not understand that in addition to statutes and cases, there are procedural rules that affect virtually every aspect of a criminal case. They refuse to see that legal arguments may stem from a given source, but must then be brought before the court in a manner consistent with all applicable procedural rules. This means that arguments cannot typically be raised when and how the defendant wants to raise them. The procedural rules act as an overlay to substantive sources, and govern the manner in which the latter can be used. This point is simply lost on jailhouse lawyers. Continue reading