In neat cursive handwriting on lined notebook paper, Melody Williams has filed carefully worded motions and briefs in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.
The Toledo woman is scheduled to be in court today to help select jurors and launch the defense of her one and only client: Herself.
Ms. Williams, 49, is charged with aggravated murder, aggravated arson, aggravated robbery, and two counts of tampering with evidence in the death of L.C. Lyons, Jr., who was found shot to death inside his burned-out Sylvania Township home on July 4, 2011.
While a conviction could land her in prison for life, Ms. Williams has chosen the unconventional method of representing herself — pro se, as it is known in legal terms. It’s a choice that’s not so uncommon with small claims and other civil matters, but it’s highly unusual in criminal cases.
“It’s not advisable,” said Toledo attorney John Thebes, who along with Adrian Cimerman served as “advisory counsel” in 2000 to James Jordan, a Toledoan who chose to represent himself on capital murder charges.
Jordan, who died in prison of kidney failure in 2004, was convicted and sentenced to death for killing an elderly West Toledo couple. During his jury trial before then-Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Ronald Bowman, he made no opening or closing arguments to the jury, and after the guilty verdicts were reached, presented no mitigation evidence to try to dissuade the jury from giving him the death penalty.
Mr. Thebes said it was difficult to be in court to answer Jordan’s questions but not actively participate in the trial. At the same time, he said, he and Mr. Cimerman had to be prepared to take over in the event Jordan decided that he wanted lawyers after all.
“It’s a very difficult process in that it takes everybody out of their comfort zone — judge and prosecutor and standby counsel,” he said. “It’s a situation nobody likes to be in, especially in a capital case.”
Mr. Thebes said he has no way of knowing if Jordan’s outcome might have been different, though he prefers to think two experienced lawyers at least might have saved him from the death sentence.
Attorney Pete Rost of Toledo, who was initially appointed to defend Ms. Williams, said her decision to go it alone is “ill-advised,” but her right all the same.
“Once someone enters into a trial, with or without a lawyer, a lot of things apply — rules of evidence, rules of procedure,” he said. “… Just because she doesn’t have a lawyer doesn’t mean she won’t be held to the same legal standard by the court, which is why people hire lawyers.”
Judge Ruth Ann Franks appointed Toledo attorney Don Cameron to serve as advisory counsel for Ms. Williams. Mr. Cameron said it’s his first time during a nearly 33-year legal career to act in this capacity.
“I am not her attorney,” he said. “I’m acting like an attorney only in the fact that I’m keeping things in confidence. Our communications are in confidence. … If she asks me questions, I can answer them. I can do that.”
Toledo attorney Merle Dech has served as advisory counsel both in common pleas and federal courts for pro se defendants. Pro se clients, he said, have to ask for help from advisory counsel; lawyers can’t go to them and tell them what to do.
“You are on standby,” Mr. Dech said, also noting the need to be ready to take over: “I took notes throughout the trial. I was ready. I could have tried the case. That’s how you have to treat it.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.
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