LEE COUNTY — Dressed in a black suit and blue shirt, his brown hair combed back, Brian Casey orchestrated an unusual sight in a Lee County courtroom Tuesday – questioning the jurors who could send him to prison for life.
Casey, a 39-year-old south Fort Myers man charged with second-degree murder, will represent himself at trial this week, a right guaranteed by law. Investigators have said Casey shot and killed Ryan Vanderson, 34, at Vanderson's south Fort Myers home, then set it ablaze in October 2010 during a business meeting.
In a separate case, Casey is accused of strangling and killing his childhood friend, Larrick Sikes, 38, just days after the Vanderson killing.
"I'm not an attorney," Casey told about 40 potential jurors, eight of whom were later selected for the trial. "I don't think I'm an attorney. I just think there are some things that may have happened in my case that aren't right."
It's rare to find a self-represented defendant, known as a "pro se" defendant, but judges allow it as long as the accused understands the ramifications.
"It is a very unusual situation, especially for a murder trial," said Scott Sundby, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, who isn't familiar with Casey's case. "It's an action that's somewhat controversial, but the (U.S.) Supreme Court has held there's a constitutional right to proceed pro se because the defendant is the one that suffers the consequences."
The decision to proceed pro se might be legal, but it's often not a smart one, said Roberta Flowers, a professor at Stetson University's College of Law and a former prosecutor.
"The old adage is that if you represent yourself, you have a fool for a client," said Flowers, who also isn't familiar with Casey's case.
Since the early days of his arrest, Casey has repeatedly asked to be his own lawyer. He's dropped several court-appointed public defenders and other attorneys along the way, and been at odds with Lee Circuit Judge Edward Volz about the handling of his case.
On Tuesday, his trial got underway with prosecutors and Casey interrogating potential jurors.
For 25 minutes, Casey meandered through the pool of 40 potential jurors, asking about their links to law enforcement, familial ties to drug abuse and suicide, and ability to fairly judge a pro se defendant. Prosecutors objected to his questioning five times, with Volz sustaining in every case.
Casey spoke softly. Sometimes he was polite, sometimes he was bordering on rude. He often said he didn't want to ask probing, potentially embarrassing questions. But at one point, told a woman who works as a counselor with at-risk youth that she should consider a new profession.
Several risks come with allowing a defendant to proceed pro se. One is that the defendant might not raise objections that could potentially be appealed. Another is that the defendant could turn a trial into a spectacle, becoming the ringmaster of his own circus.
A judge, however, can't be seen as too persuasive in promoting representation for a defendant, Sundby said.
"The tightrope the judge has to walk is to make sure the defendant knows the perils of self-representation, but not be seen as coercive in forcing the defendant into accepting a lawyer he doesn't want," Sundby said.
A pro se defendant can also become a prosecutor's "nightmare," Flowers said. Without a defense lawyer to raise objections, a prosecutor must be careful not to overstep legal boundaries that could later be appealed.
Prosecutors also must avoid looking like they're bullying a defendant who lacks legal training, Flowers said. A few potential jurors said Tuesday they thought Casey was at a "disadvantage."
"One of the things jurors do not like is unfairness," Flowers said. "The prosecutor has to make sure you don't get halfway through a trial and jurors start to feel it's unfair to the defendant."
Still, Flowers said, the odds are heavily in the state's favor.
"There's just a million little things that can go wrong or right in a courtroom," Flowers said, "And it takes experience to make those good things happen."