The adage that “a man acting as his own lawyer has a fool for a client” came to more than one person’s mind when Angola inmate Jeffrey Cameron Clark announced he wanted to represent himself in his first-degree murder trial for the 1999 beating and stabbing death of a security officer, Capt. David C. Knapps.
Clark is one of the so-called “Angola 5,” the group of convicted murderers accused of killing Knapps in an escape attempt.
Presiding Judge Jerome M. Winsberg is known for his sense of humor, but wasn’t laughing April 27 as he tried to talk Clark out of the idea of handling his own defense.
Court-appointed defense attorneys Tommy Damico and Joe Lotwick, who had been on the case for years, also tried without success to get Clark to drop the idea.
Winsberg questioned Clark at length to determine if Clark understood the implications of acting as his own attorney in a trial in which prosecutors were seeking the death penalty, but he finally ruled Clark had the constitutional right to defend himself.
Winsberg said Clark couldn’t appeal his conviction on the grounds of ineffective counsel.
Damico and Lotwick remained as co-counsel and questioned the potential jurors about a week later when all parties assembled in St. Tammany Parish’s courthouse to pick a jury.
Damico also questioned expert witnesses in the guilt phase of Clark’s trial, while Lotwick directed all of the defense efforts in the penalty phase.
Clark, 51, said he wasn’t questioning his attorneys’ competence or commitment but told the judge they had a divergence of philosophies as to the best way to defend him against the charge.
Clark also said he had studied the law by reading law books and court rulings and by helping other inmates with post-conviction filings. During the trial, an inmate witness said in answer to Clark’s question that Clark’s nickname at Angola is “Lawyer.”
How did “Lawyer” do?
Jurors began hearing the case May 7 and convicted him as charged May 15, deliberating less than two hours.
The next day, after hearing the state and defense witnesses, the jurors deliberated less than 33 minutes before deciding he should die by lethal injection.
Clark may have succeeded in humanizing himself to a certain extent by standing before the jurors, addressing them in opening and closing statements and questioning witnesses, but the team of prosecutors from Caddo and Jefferson parishes presented a strong, well-organized case.
Clark, whose references to himself in the third person sometimes sounded odd, could not overcome the blood evidence on his clothing, testimony from two other officers taken hostage and a multitude of self-incriminating statements Clark gave authorities over the years.
Clark was limited in his ability to explain his contention that he was not part of the escape plot, and he was flatly contradicted in claiming he tried to help Knapps and the hostages.
Jurors learned in the penalty phase that Clark is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, which Damico said no doubt made it easier for them to choose the death penalty.
The clincher, however, may have been two images shown before the jury retired: a picture of Knapps with a granddaughter juxtaposed with an autopsy photo of his bloody, unrecognizable head.
James Minton covers Baker, Zachary and the Felicianas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.