Defendants’ right to represent themselves does not extend to the right to abuse witnesses during cross-examination.
Under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, defendants in criminal trials have a right to act as their own attorney (often referred to as proceeding “pro se”). But what happens if a pro se defendant wants to personally cross-examine the victim in their case? Do victims have a right to refuse to be cross-examined by a person who caused them pain and trauma?
The United States Supreme Court has found that criminal defendants have a right to proceed pro se, and are entitled to cross-examine witnesses when they do so. However, this right is not absolute. If a defendant disrupts the courtroom or abuses a witness, a trial court can limit their ability to act as their own attorney.
In a recent case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that a defendant did not have the right to personally cross examine a minor victim at a rape trial. At trial, the defendant sought to cross-examine his minor sexual assault victim; the trial court denied this request. The Court upheld this decision, finding that the trial court’s limitation was reasonable, particularly given that the defendant had violated a condition of his bail by contacting his victim. The defendant was ultimately convicted of a number of sex crimes and sentenced to up to 40 years in jail. The National Crime Victim Law Institute joined The Women’s Law Project and more than 20 other organizations in submitting an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief, asking that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court uphold the trial court’s decision.
In California, there is not a specific law that prohibits a defendant from cross examining a witness when they represent themselves. However, an Irvine crime victims’ rights attorney
can ask the court to appoint standby counsel to assist a pro se defendant. This lawyer will then be available to cross examine a victim in the even that the defendant is barred from cross examining a witness. The defendant can still choose what questions will be asked — but they won’t personally be able to ask the questions.
If a defendant is allowed to cross-examine their victim, it can be incredibly traumatizing, for child and adult victims alike. It may also discourage a victims from testifying, as having to answer questions from your alleged abuser can be incredibly intimidating. An Irvine crime victims’ rights attorney can make a strong argument to the court that a pro se defendant should not be permitted to cross examine a victim. This may be based in part on the language of California’s Marsy’s Law, which provides that victims have a right to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect.
The criminal process can be difficult for any victim of a crime. When a defendant acts as their own attorney, the possibility of being cross-examined by the very person who hurt you can be overwhelming. An Irvine crime victims’ rights attorney can protect you from this outcome, making a strong case that the defendant should not be permitted to personally cross-examine you.
Justice 4 Crime Victims was founded by former prosecutor Michael E. Fell. With substantial experience in the criminal justice system, he knows how the process works — and puts his knowledge to work for victims every single day. Our firm represents people throughout California who have been victims of any type of crime.Contact us today at 949-585-9055 or firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free initial consultation with an Irvine victims’ rights attorney.