Not many defendants charged with serious crimes get the chance to cross-examine their accusers.
John Bujak does.
Thats because the former Canyon County prosecutor, facing a charge of misuse of public funds that could cost him up to 14 years in prison, is serving as his own defense attorney. He is directly addressing the jurors who will decide his fate and is questioning witnesses on both sides.
Every American has the constitutional right to act pro se (for themselves) in court, and its fairly common among misdemeanor defendants who dont want to pay a lawyer, said Boise defense attorney David Leroy, a former Idaho attorney general.
Its much less common in serious criminal matters, and its very uncommon when the defendant is an attorney, Leroy said. A friend and professional associate of Bujaks for the past decade, Leroy said the trial that began in Caldwell on Oct. 28 is the first such case hes seen in more than 40 years of practice.
Dan Kessler said he cant recall a case handled like this one in his 24 years as trial court administrator in the Canyon County Courthouse. Other local attorneys charged with serious crimes most recently a Nampa man accused of battery with the intent to commit rape have been represented by fellow lawyers, he said.
Bujak does have two county-paid lawyers who, until Oct. 24, were at the head of his defense, presenting arguments in a long line of motion hearings and other proceedings. On the eve of his trial, Bujak asked to take the lead in his defense but retain the two public defenders as standby counsel who can advise and assist him as needed.
On the first day of the trial, a reporter asked Bujak whether it felt good to be back in the lawyers role. He laughed and acknowledged the old maxim that an attorney who represents himself must have a fool for a client.
That ... keeps lurking in the back of my mind, he said. But I have backup.
Although attorneys have the courtroom knowledge and experience to handle a case a significant advantage over nonlawyers who represent themselves they seem to be less likely to take on that task, Leroy said.
There are distinct pitfalls in self-representation, he said.
The principal confusion would be with the jury and the uncertainty at any certain time of the role the attorney was playing, Leroy said, noting that judges routinely advise juries that the arguments of counsel are not to be considered by you as evidence.
When its the defendant whos making those arguments, particularly at the opening and close of trial, it blurs the lines, he said.
Another hazard for an attorney handling his own defense is the lack of objectivity, Leroy said.
Third-party distance is helpful in analyzing how uninformed third parties are likely to receive a set of proofs, he said. Its always difficult when one is personally involved to guess how someone else, hearing something for the first time, will be impressed or unimpressed.
I think there is a role for enthusiasm and earnestness in presenting every case, but without an objective base and a critical analysis of both the facts and the law, that emotion can be misplaced.
WHY DO IT?
In his motion to serve as his own advocate, Bujak said he understands the dangers of self-representation. But he stressed his 10 years of criminal law experience and, referring to himself in third-person, said the defendant has the best knowledge of the facts underlying this case because he lived them.
He said that knowledge will be needed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses who will not testify truthfully.
So far, prosecution witnesses Bujak has questioned include all three county commissioners, whom he has accused in court documents and statements of lying, trying to defame him and making him take the fall for decisions they were party to.
They accuse him of deceiving them and pocketing several hundred thousand dollars in county funds he handled as administrator of a contract to use county resources to prosecute Nampa misdemeanors.
But in the courtroom, acting as his own attorney, Bujak has greeted the witnesses cordially and led them methodically through the points he wants to discuss. Several cross-examinations bogged down with Bujak repeatedly reframing questions when witnesses would not give the answer he sought.
One such instance took place Thursday when Bujak had an exchange with Commissioner David Ferdinand.
Bujak: Isnt it true that you agreed I was allowed to profit?
Bujak: Isnt it true you agreed the money could be put in my personal trust account?
Ferdinand: No. In a trust account.
Bujak: Managed by me.
Asked again Wednesday whether he was enjoying being back in this courtroom role, Bujak said by email: Although I have always enjoyed being in the courtroom as a lawyer, the experience of representing myself in a criminal action is uncomfortable.
Ferdinand said it didnt feel strange being cross-examined by the person he was testifying about: Surprisingly, it hasnt been a problem.
LICENSE AND PROCEDURE
Bujak is not currently licensed to practice law he agreed to a suspension of his license pending resolution of this and other investigations against him but that has no effect on his ability to represent himself at trial, said Idaho State Bar spokesman Dan Black.
A person representing himself is not practicing law, Black said. The practice of law is representing someone else.
Bujak said last week that he doesnt know whether he will testify during his trial or whether he would question himself or give that role to his standby counsel.
It is possible that the standby attorneys could take over my case or assist at any time, he said.
Said Leroy: Mr. Bujak is a competent and experienced trial lawyer and can be expected to handle himself competently. But a better rule is that every defendant should have an attorney of a different name.
Does it count if the defendant has attorneys in standby position?
Not if he doesnt use them, Leroy said.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447