Luis Bracamontes, accused in the killing of two deputies, is trying to fire his defense lawyers and represent himself in his death penalty case, a move his attorneys fear would allow him to attempt to plead guilty or no contest and then try in court to consent to a death sentence.
The latest legal drama in the case is spelled out in motions filed in Sacramento Superior Court in the last several days. They describe the difficulty Bracamontes’ lawyers – Jeffrey Barbour and Norm Dawson – have had in trying to craft a defense for their client.
A hearing over Bracamontes’ desire to act as his own lawyer is scheduled for next Friday before Judge Steve White, and Barbour and Dawson are again trying to close the proceedings to the media and the prosecution.
“Counsel requests that this court close the proceedings and exclude all persons, except defense counsel and necessary court personnel,” a motion filed Friday states. “The prosecution in this case, though permissibly filing a memo on the issue, is not a party to the issue of whether Mr. Bracamontes is permitted to represent himself.”
Bracamontes is accused in the October 2014 slayings of Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County sheriff’s Deputy Michael Davis Jr. during a bloody daylong crime spree. A Mexican citizen who was in this country illegally at the time of the slayings, Bracamontes has proved to be a challenge to his lawyers as he has alternately joked in court proceedings and once blurted out that he was guilty and wanted to be executed.
His lawyers already have unsuccessfully challenged their client’s mental state in court and now say “he may not be competent to act as his own attorney.”
“As this court is aware, it is anticipated that Mr. Bracamontes will ask this court to waive counsel in the case and proceed pro per (representing himself),” they wrote. “As this court is also aware, defense counsel will not consent to Mr. Bracamontes’ anticipated desire to plead guilty in this case.”
Prosecutors Rod Norgaard and David Tellman responded by filing court papers noting that “criminal defendants have a constitutional right to defend themselves.”
They cited a December finding by the California Supreme Court in a similar case in which Andy Mickel represented himself in a death penalty trial over the 2002 ambush slaying of Red Bluff police Officer Dave Mobilio.
Although there were questions about Mickel’s mental state, he was found to be competent to act as his own attorney. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Mickel also testified during trial that he committed the crime.
Lawyers say any defendants who try to represent themselves are making a grave mistake, but they note that it is a defendant’s right and is not that unusual.
“It never goes well,” said veteran Sacramento defense attorney William Portanova, a former prosecutor. “It happens more than it should, and it goes wrong every single time it does.
“In prosecutors’ offices, there’s a phrase to describe it: it’s called a slow-motion guilty plea.”
Portanova added that a defendant who tries to enter a guilty plea – even in a death penalty case – needs to be found to be making the decision as “the product of a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiver of constitutional rights.”