Transcript

385:

Pro Se
Transcript

Originally aired 07.10.2009

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/385

Prologue.

Ira Glass

There's an old saying that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. And not many lawyers actually try it, but people like you and me apparently do, lots of us non-lawyers. The number's actually kind of shocking. In New York State alone, 1.8 million people represent themselves in court in a typical year. It's nine out of ten litigants in Housing Court, three out of four litigants in Family Court. So many amateurs gumming up the system that, years ago, the State decided to open up help centers, 23 of them all over the state, like this one in a courthouse in downtown Manhattan.

Like, we had a guy yesterday who didn't know what summary judgment was. He thought he had lost the whole case already when he didn't realize he had just lost the motion and the case was still going to proceed. You know, stuff like that.

Ira Glass

That's one of the three law school interns who are here giving advice today. And if you heard him say that and you thought to yourself, I don't know what summary judgment means either, I just want to say to you me too. Which is kind of the point. These are amateurs being sent in to do something that is technical, and full of jargon, and totally intimidating.

In criminal cases, you can get a free court-appointed attorney, but any other kind of case, housing, family law, credit issues, small claims, bankruptcy, civil cases of all kinds, you are on your own. And the reason that most people represent themselves is they just can't afford an attorney. So the number's been increasing as the economy's gotten worse.

At this particular help center, which specializes in housing court cases, people wait in long lines and a big government room with green linoleum floors. One guy is so confused that he thinks that he's here to get a free lawyer to take his case. He fills out a form and then he takes it to the receptionist.

OK. No, I think we have a little misunderstanding about that. Are you represented by an attorney?

No, ma'am.

OK. You're representing yourself. We do that because it says are you representing yourself in court? And yes, you are.

Oh, I am?

Yeah.

Oh. OK. I thought I was going to--

You might get an attorney--

Ira Glass

One of the attending court attorneys here, one named Ruth Sharfman, told one of our producers, Sean Cole, that, understandably, people have a lot of misconceptions about what is in the law.

Ruth Sharfman

I mean, some of them are almost-- well, they can't evict me, it's winter, you know? You don't throw people out New Year's Eve, but yeah, they can't evict me, I have a baby. It's like, watch them. They have to give me six months' more time to move out. No. They don't have to.

And then there are the people who come in terrified because they get a notice and think the Marshall's going to throw them out that afternoon. They don't realize they can't do it. They have to take you to court. You know, but they come in thinking well, don't I have the right to a lawyer? And the answer is yeah, you have the right to a lawyer. What you don't have is the right to one you don't pay for.

Ira Glass

As you might expect, some lawyers and judges hate these amateur lawyers. Imagine being a surgeon and having somebody in the operating room in a key position who doesn't know the names of the instruments or what they can do. The legal term for representing yourself in court is a Latin phrase, pro se, which means on behalf of himself.

And so today, on our radio show, we have four very dramatic stories of pro se people, people brave enough-- or desperate enough, actually, in most of these cases-- to become their own advocates. One of them does that in a courtroom, the others do it out in the world.

From WBEZ, Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Act 1 of our show today, Psycho Dabble. Jon Ronson has the tale of a teenager who simply has to outwit professional psychiatrists, and a lot of them.

Act 2, Disorder in the Court, in which I talk to a prosecutor who has lost to an amateur who was defending himself.

Act 3, Swak Down, in that act a brother does what he has to to help his sister.

Act 4, Underling Gets An Underling. Stay with us.

Act One. Psycho Dabble.

Ira Glass

Act 1, Psycho Dabble. Jon Ronson, in London, has this story of a guy named Tony who has spent years representing himself trying to prove a case with some people who think he's crazy. Literally.

Jon Ronson

I first heard of Tony three months ago when I was having lunch with a Scientologist called Brian Daniels. Brian runs the British office of an international network of Scientologists called the Citizens Commission on Human Rights. They're determined to prove to the world that psychiatrists are wicked and must be stopped.

Brian and I shared a mistrust of psychiatry. Admittedly, his loathing was deep and abiding and I'd only had mine for a few days, but it gave us something to talk about over lunch. When dessert came, he put down his spoon and he said, "You should meet Tony." "Who's Tony?" I asked. "Tony's in Broadmoor." said Brian.

I put down my spoon. Broadmoor is Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital. It was once known as Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. This is where they sent Ian Brady, the "Moors Murderer," who killed five children in Manchester in the 1960s. And Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered 13 women in the 1970s. And the Stockwell Strangler, who murdered seven elderly people in 1986. Broadmoor is where they sentence the serial killers, and the pedophiles, and the child murderers, the ones who couldn't help themselves.

"What did Tony do?" I asked Brian. "Tony," said Brian, "is completely sane. He faked his way in there, and now he's stuck. Nobody will believe he's sane." "What do you mean?" I asked. "He was arrested years ago for something." said Brian. "I think he beat someone up or something, and he decided to fake madness to get out of a prison sentence. So they sent him to Broadmoor, and now he's stuck. The more he tries to convince the psychiatrists he's not crazy, the more they take it as evidence that he is. Do you want me to get you into Broadmoor to meet Tony?"

I automatically started thinking about what I'd do if I had to prove I was sane. I'd like to think that just being my regular, sane self would be evidence enough. But I'd probably behave in such an overly polite, and helpful, and competent manner, I'd come across like a mad butler with panic in his eyes. Plus it turns out that when I'm placed in an insane situation, I tend to get crazier.

Recently, I was mid-air on a plane with no leg room. And it was so packed and claustrophobic, I let out a loud, involuntary yelp. I shouted, "Eww!" I didn't know that such mysterious, crazy noises existed within me.

Did I want to meet Tony? I looked at Brian. "OK." I said.

My mistrust of psychiatrists began the previous Monday when I was at a friend's house and I happened to notice on her shelf a book called, DSM-IV-TR. I've been told that many Americans have heard of this book, but it was new to me. My friend explained that it was the psychiatrist's manual published by the American Psychiatric Association.

It was huge, some 900 pages. And I later found out that it sits on the shelves of psychiatry offices all over the world and it lists every known mental disorder. While flipping through it, I instantly diagnosed myself with 12 different disorders including, but not limited to: Disorder of Written Expression, which is poor handwriting; Arithmetic Learning Disorder, which has luckily been cured since I bought a calculator; and Nightmare Disorder, which is diagnosed when the sufferer dreams of being pursued or declared a failure. All my nightmares involve someone chasing me down the street whilst yelling, "You're a failure!"

I closed the manual. I never realized how unbelievably nuts I was. Or maybe I wasn't nuts at all. Maybe the American Psychiatric Association were the nutty ones. I wanted to find a critic of psychiatry, someone who'd studied its irrationalities, so I could test this new theory. So I did a Google search and found Brian and the CCHR. And that's how, two Saturdays later, I ended up in a car with Brian heading towards Broadmoor in Crowthorne, a village to the west of London.

Although Brian's group had been quietly helping Tony with his various legal tribunals to try and get him out of Broadmoor, they hadn't yet introduced him to a journalist. I was to be the first. The visitor's center, housed behind high security fence, after fence, after fence, was painted in the calming hues of a letter complex: peaches, and pinks, and pine. The prints on the wall were pastel paintings of French doors opening onto beaches at sunrise. The building was called The Wellness Center.

Brian said the attorney would be a minute because it's a bit of a walk from the Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder unit. I looked at Brian. "Is Tony in the part of Broadmoor that houses the most dangerous people?" I asked. "Crazy, isn't it?" laughed Brian.

Patients began drifting in to sit with their loved ones at tables and chairs that had been nailed to the ground. They all looked quite similar to each other: quite docile and sad-eyed, overweight, and wearing loose T-shirts and sweat pants. I suppose there's not much to do in here but eat. They drank tea and ate chocolate bars from the dispenser with their parents. I wondered if any of them were famous.

"Oh, here's Tony now." said Brian. I looked across the room. A man, who looked to be in his late 20s, was walking towards us. He wasn't shuffling like the others had, he was sauntering. His arm was outstretched. He wasn't wearing sweat pants, he was wearing a pinstriped jacket and trousers. He looked like a young businessman trying to make his way in the world, like someone on The Apprentice, a man who wants to show everyone that he was very, very sane.

And, of course, as I watched him approach our table, I wondered if the pinstripe was a clue that he was sane, or a clue that he wasn't. He shook my hand and sat down. "So Brian says you faked your way in here." I said. "That's exactly right." said Tony. He had the voice of a normal, nice, eager-to-help young man. "I'd committed GBH," he said, "grievous bodily harm. After they arrested me, I sat in my cell and I thought, I'm looking at five to seven years. So I asked the other prisoners what to do. They said, 'Easy. Tell them you're mad. They'll put you in a county hospital. You'll have Sky TV and a PlayStation. Nurses will bring you pizzas.' "But they didn't send me to some cushy hospital. They sent me to bloody Broadmoor." "How long ago was this?" I asked. "12 years ago." said Tony. I involuntarily grinned. Tony grinned back.

I wasn't allowed to tape Tony, which is why you're not hearing his voice. But I've had several long conversations with him now, in person and over the phone. I didn't want this story to cause him any more trouble with the authorities, so I decided to change Tony's name. I asked him to choose a name, and we decided on Tony.

Tony said faking madness to get in was the easy part, especially when you're 17, and you take drugs, and you watch a lot of scary movies. You don't need to know how authentically crazy people behave, you just plagiarize the character that Dennis Hopper played in the movie Blue Velvet.

That's what Tony did. He told a visiting psychiatrist that he liked sending people love letters straight from his heart, and a love letter is a bullet from a gun. And if you receive a love letter from him, you'll go straight to Hell.

As more psychiatrists began visiting Tony's cell, he broadened his repertoire to include bits from Hellraiser, A Clockwork Orange, and the David Cronenberg movie Crash, in which people get sexual pleasure from enacting car crashes. He even told one psychiatrist that he wanted to kill women because he thought looking into their eyes as they died would make him feel normal, a tidbit he got from the book about the serial killer, Ted Bundy, that he found in the prison library.

As Tony told me his story, Brian sat next to us chuckling, dryly, at the lunacy of psychiatrists. I didn't know what to think. Unlike the sad-eyed, medicated patients all around us, Tony did seem completely ordinary and sane.

"They took my word for everything." Tony said. Tony said that the day he arrived at Broadmoor, he took one look at the place and realized he'd make a spectacularly bad decision. He urgently asked to speak to the psychiatrists. "I am not mentally ill," he told them. Tony said that it's a lot harder to convince people you're sane than it is to convince them that you're crazy.

He found that when you try and act sane in front of people who believe that you aren't, you get self-conscious. Your smile seems too wide. Psychiatrists like to scrutinize body movements, so he had to calculate how to walk like a sane person, even how to dress like one. He said that he was fully aware that when he decided to wear pinstripe to meet me, he was taking a risk. The look could go either way.

"I thought the best way to seem normal," he said, "was to talk to people normally about normal things like football and what's on TV." So that's what he did at first, but in Broadmoor everything is open to interpretation.

One time, quite early on, he happened to tell a ward nurse, "Did you know that the US military is training bumble bees to sniff out explosives?" Tony had seen an article about this in New Scientist Magazine. Later, when he read his medical notes, he saw that someone had written, "thinks bees can sniff out explosives."

At the time, Tony thought that being helpful and polite and volunteering to do things like weeding the hospital garden would be his ticket out of there. But the tactic failed. "They saw how well-behaved I was." he told me, "and they decided that I could only behave well in the environment of a psychiatric hospital. And this proved I was mad." I instinctively didn't believe Tony about this. It seemed too absurd. But later on, he sent me one of his psychiatric reports and, sure enough, it was right there. "Tony is cheerful and friendly," the report stated. "His detention in hospital is preventing deterioration of his condition." It even mentioned weeding the garden.

So, after a while, Tony stopped being well-behaved. In any case, he really wasn't fond of hanging around rapists, and pedophiles, and child murderers. It was unsavory and also quite frightening. "I've got the Stockwell Strangler on one side of me, and the Tiptoe Through the Tulips Rapist on the other." he said.

The Stockwell Strangler, his name is Kenneth Erskine. "Kenny's OK." said Tony. "He's-- well, I was about to say he's a harmless character but, clearly, he's not." Tony smiled. "One time I grabbed him from behind and put my arm around his neck, and I said, 'This makes a change, doesn't it, Kenny? You're not often on this side of the fence, are you mate?' Anyway, they didn't like that at all. They said I had no understanding that, that wasn't a funny joke."

Tony started withdrawing to his room a lot to avoid his criminally insane neighbors. He said on the outside this would be a perfectly understandable position, but on the inside, it demonstrates that you're withdrawn and aloof and you have a grandiose sense of your own importance. In Broadmoor, not wanting to hang out with pedophiles is a sign of madness.

Eventually Tony devised a radical scheme. He realized that if you engage with the therapy, it's an indication that you're getting better. And if you're getting better, they have a legal right to detain you. So Tony deduced that if he took no therapy at all, he couldn't get better. He'd be deemed officially untreatable so they'd have to let him go. The problem was that, at Broadmoor, if a nurse sits next to you at lunch and makes small talk, and you make small talk back, that's considered engaging with therapy. So Tony had to tell them all, will you sit at another table? And that's when they decided he was really going nuts.

The patient's behavior is getting worse at Broadmoor, said one report. He does not engage. And his tactical refusal to engage showed him to be cunning and manipulative. To top it off, he was suffering from cognitive distortion because he didn't believe he was mad.

Tony was funny for most of my two hours with him, but towards the end he got sadder. "I arrived here when I was 17." he said. "I'm 29 now. I've grown up in Broadmoor, wandering the wards of Broadmoor. This is supposed to be the best years of your life. I've seen suicides. I saw a man take another man's eye out." Tony said just being here can be enough to turn someone crazy.

Then one of the guards called out a word. It might have been time. And with barely a goodbye, Tony immediately shot from our table and across the room to the door that led back to his block. All the patients did the same. It was a display of tremendous, extreme, acute, good behavior.

Brian's organization, the CCHR, has a museum on Sunset Boulevard called Psychiatry: An Industry of Death. One of their spokespeople is the former Cheers star, Kirstie Alley. The DVD, which I watched when I got home, reveals a catalog of unbelievably horrible abuses perpetrated by psychiatrists throughout history.

[BEGIN AUDIO PLAYBACK]

-After slavery was abolished, psychiatric racism not only persisted, it intensified.

[END AUDIO PLAYBACK]

Jon Ronson

At the outset, it was very convincing. Here's the American physician, Samuel Cartright, identifying in 1851, a mental disorder, drapetomania, evident only in slaves. The sole symptom of this disorder was the desire to run away from slavery. The cure was whipping the devil out of them as a preventative measure.

Here is archive of the neurologist Walter Freeman hammering an ice pick through a patient's eye socket sometime during the 1950s. Freeman would travel America in his loboto-mobile, it's a sort of camper van, enthusiastically lobotomizing wherever he was allowed.

[BEGIN AUDIO PLAYBACK]

-Hacking apart his patient's brains on stage or sometimes right there in the vehicle.

[END AUDIO PLAYBACK]

Here's a psychiatrist actually electrocuting a kitten. Well, you see black and white footage of a kitten being electrocuted. And the inference is that the pair of hands responsible belongs to a psychiatrist. By this point in the DVD, I wouldn't put anything past those bastards.

[BEGIN AUDIO PLAYBACK]

-Psychiatrists commit one third of the sex-related offenses committed by doctors.

[END AUDIO PLAYBACK]

The DVD, eventually, spirals into a big, anti-psychiatry conspiracy theory. Psychiatry is responsible for 9/11, The Holocaust, Columbine, and its ultimate secret master plan is to enslave the world. The commentary says in every city, every state, every country, you will find psychiatrists committing rape, sexual abuse, murder and fraud.

A few days passed. Then a letter arrived from Tony. This place is awful at nighttime, John, he wrote. Words cannot express the atmosphere. I noticed that the wild daffodils were in bloom this morning. I felt like running through them, as I used to in my childhood with my mom. This is when I got to see Tony's files. It included them in the package. They confirmed all the crazy stories he'd told the psychiatrists back in '98 when he was trying to get out of a prison sentence. It also included a description of the crime he'd committed.

The victim was a homeless man, an alcoholic, who happened to be passing. He apparently made an inappropriate comment about one of Tony's friends. Tony, who was drunk, and stoned, and 17, kicked him seven or eight times in the stomach and groin. He left him, walked back to his friends and had another drink. He then returned to the man, who still lying motionless on the floor, and he head butted him and kicked him again. He kicked him again, in the face, and walked away.

I felt the ground shift slightly under my feet. I remember that list of the movies Tony plagiarized to demonstrate that he was mentally ill. One was A Clockwork Orange, which begins with a gang of thugs kicking a homeless man while he was on the floor. My phone rang. I recognized the number. It was Tony. I didn't answer it.

A month passed. Then an email I'd been waiting for arrived. It was from Professor Anthony Maden, he's the head clinician at Tony's unit. Tony had given me his name. Anthony Maden wouldn't agree to go on tape, but he was happy to answer my questions in writing. Tony, the email read, did get here by faking mental illness because he thought it would be preferable to prison. I felt a huge surge of relief and warmer towards Tony again. But next line in the email wasn't so great. It said, most psychiatrists who've assessed him, and there have been a lot, have concluded that he is not mentally ill, but suffers from a psychopathic personality disorder.

I looked at the email. Tony's a psychopath, I thought. Tony rang again. I didn't answer. I emailed Professor Maden. Isn't that like that scene in the movie, Ghost, when Whoopi Goldberg pretends to be a psychic, and then it turns out that she actually can talk to the dead? No, he emailed back. It isn't like that Whoopi Goldberg scene at all. Tony faked mental illness. Mental illness can include symptoms like hallucinations and delusions. Mental illness comes and goes. It can get better with medication. Tony is a psychopath. That doesn't come and go. That is how the person is.

I wondered what the difference was between a psychopath and a sociopath. And the answer is, there isn't really one. The terms are, pretty much, used interchangeably. A psychopath is someone who doesn't have the part of the brain that provides conscience, and empathy, and remorse.

Professor Maden said faking mental illness to try to get a cushy hospital sentence is the, typically, deceitful act of a psychopath. Tony faking his brain going wrong was the act of someone whose brain had gone wrong. He wrote, of course, you can always argue, as with any mental disorder, that the very concept is invalid. But if one accepts that there is such an entity, Tony has it. He added that if Tony had just agreed to have treatment, he'd have been out years ago. But, he said, claiming you're untreatable in order to get out is typical of a psychopath.

Tony swears he isn't a psychopath. He says he feels lots of remorse for what he did, but when he expresses remorse, psychiatrists claim it's part of a psychopath's make up to say they're remorseful when they're not. He says when he faked mental illness back in 1980, he must have stupidly included some fake psychopathic stuff in there too. He says trying to prove you're not a psychopath is even harder than trying to prove you're not mentally ill.

But I didn't feel quite so persuaded by Tony now. His story didn't seem like such a darkly absurd catch-22 situation anymore. I felt I persuaded by Professor Maden instead. And I think I would have continued feeling that way about Tony if I hadn't spoken to Professor Sashi Sashidharan.

Sashi Sashidharan

If you give me just a second, John, I will just look at what I wrote down at the time.

Jon Ronson

Professor Sashidharan is an independent consultant psychiatrist who's met Tony lots of times. Brian put us together. And when I phone him, he seemed quite reluctant to talk at first. "Are you a Scientologist?" he asked me. He sounded a bit tongue-tied. "No." I said, equally tongue-tied. "Are you?" "No." he said. We both relaxed.

Professor Sashidharan told tell me that, at one point, Tony was seen as one of the most dangerous men in Broadmoor. But Professor Sashidharan said he wasn't surprised that a young man would behave this way.

Sashi Sashidharan

In fact, the diagnosis of personality disorder should not be made in somebody who is as young as 16 or 17 because, you know, it's too early to say. Unfortunately, in Tony's case, the other reason why he attracted a diagnosis of personality disorder so quickly was that there was no longer any evidence of the mental illness doctors thought that he had once he came to Broadmoor. He was not getting treatment for any mental illness. The original symptoms, that the doctors thought they had identified when he was in prison, had all melted away. So they could no longer argue that he had a mental illness, therefore, he should be in hospital. So personality disorder diagnosis is quickly available to then justify his detention in a psychiatric hospital. And that's an honestly held view, it just happens to be the wrong view, in my opinion.

Jon Ronson

Would you have a message for somebody who's just committed some grievous bodily harm and they're thinking, maybe I should fake mental illness because I bet it'll be more cushy in a hospital than in a prison. What would you recommend they do?

Sashi Sashidharan

Unfortunately, it's a far too common occurrence for young people to claim-- well, not just young people, many people-- in my experience with speaking with these individuals, without exception, all of them will regret it, getting into a psychiatric hospital, because it's very easy to get into these places, but much, much more difficult to get out of those places.

Jon Ronson

Brian and I visit Tony one more time. Brian says he has a question he wants to ask him. Tony's not wearing the pinstripe this time, but he's still dressed a lot better than the other patients. He sits down. Brian leans forward. "Do you feel remorse?" he asks Tony. "My remorse," Tony immediately replies, "is that I've not just screwed up my victim's life, but also my own life, and my family's life. And that's my remorse. All the things that could have been done in my life, I feel bad about that every day."

At this moment, Tony does sound to me like a man with remorse. And I decide, on the spot, that I will not talk to any more psychiatrists because I don't want them changing my mind about him again.

Brian says Tony's story demonstrates that no two psychiatrists can agree on anything, and they, basically, just make it up as they go along. I think his story demonstrates that it's a huge mistake to screw with psychiatrists. And you should be careful not to tell people you're crazy because you might turn out to be way too convincing about it.

Tony's life might be about to get better. Professor Maden emailed to say Tony's been in Broadmoor far too long for a crime that was not the most serious. And he's hoping to move him down to a nicer, medium-security unit. And then, maybe, even a community placement. I thought Tony would be happy about this, but when I ask him, he says he'll believe it when he sees it, and they've been talking about this kind of thing for years. And then a guard calls time. And with barely a goodbye, Tony obediently rushes across the Wellness Center and is gone.

Ira Glass

Jon Ronson, he's putting together this story and others into a new book that'll probably be called The Psychopath Test. Another of his books, The Men Who Stare at Goats, is about to be released as a movie starring George Clooney.

"TWISTED", ANNIE ROSS]

Act Two. Disorder In The Court.

Ira Glass

Act 2, Disorder In The Court. So there are tons of non-lawyers representing themselves in court, everywhere. But the one area where nearly everybody uses a lawyer is criminal cases. So it's rare for a non-lawyer to defend himself in a criminal matter, and it's even more rare for him to win.

Well, back in April, a man named Jorge Cruz went into court on a drug charge: possession with intent to distribute. He admitted to the jury that he was a heroin addict. He fumbled around. He swore in court, and he won. He was up against an experienced and capable prosecutor who has won over 500 cases in the last five years, an Assistant District Attorney in Albany, New York named Francisco Calderon.

When we called Calderon to invite him onto the radio show to talk about the case, he laughed and asked why couldn't we have him speak about one of the many cases that he's actually won? But he was game to come on the air and discuss what happened in this case. We weren't able to reach Jorge Cruz. Francisco Calderon says, initially, he was pretty confident about winning this case.

Francisco Calderon

Initially, you would think that this is going to be a slam dunk, and it became a little more uncomfortable as we went along.

Ira Glass

Now, let me ask you to review the evidence against Jorge Cruz. What'd you have?

Francisco Calderon

Certainly. Basically, the police had received a call for a woman being held against her will. Upon arriving at that address, they found the woman, who was there voluntarily. But at same time, they encountered two men that were there with her, Juan Cruz and a Jorge Cruz.

Upon entering the room, they observed what they believed to be drug paraphernalia. At that point in time, they secured all the parties, went and applied for a search warrant, and then executed a search warrant on the hotel room. This is a Motel 6. Underneath one of the mattresses, they discovered in excess of four ounces of cocaine and a couple bags of heroin.

Ira Glass

What was the street value of the drugs?

Francisco Calderon

Wholesale, you're talking about maybe $5,000. If you broke it down to individual doses, you could go easily up to $10,000 to $15,000.

Ira Glass

When this went to court, early in the case, Juan Cruz-- who is Jorge's brother, by the way-- and the woman from the hotel room, both, pled guilty. And that left Jorge Cruz, who declared that he would be defending himself, which suddenly made it a harder case for the prosecutor. When it was all three of them together, the prosecutor could argue that all three of them possessed the drugs together and convict them that way. But now Jorge Cruz could get up and say it was the other two, it wasn't him.

Francisco Calderon

His defense was that listen, I'm a user. I could never afford that amount of cocaine. I was just there to party, and not for the cocaine, but for the heroine. And so, basically, it was more of a sympathy, feel sorry for me, type of approach: that he had no money, he had no transportation, so he could never have possessed that amount of cocaine. He was going to spend time with his grandkids that morning. And I'm not a lawyer, I'm just here because I want to tell you my story.

Ira Glass

Now he cursed while he was serving as his own lawyer?

Francisco Calderon

Sure. I mean, there were times where the police had tried to link different pieces of evidence to him, and his attitude was like, that's bull [BLEEP]. Oh, excuse me. Sorry about that.

Ira Glass

We can beep that out.

Francisco Calderon

[LAUGHS] Sorry about that. Holy cow.

Ira Glass

I've read that, in cases like this, the pro se lawyer often turns to the prosecution for guidance. And I wondered if there was any point where he turned to you for guidance, or where you found yourself coaching him on the right way to do something?

Francisco Calderon

No. Not at all. In this particular case, the judge had an attorney sit with him.

Ira Glass

And did that person actually give him a lot of advice?

Francisco Calderon

I don't know if he gave him a lot of advice. He gave some pointers as to what to do at different points in time of the trial. But I believe that Jorge Cruz had in his mind what his defense was going to be and, basically, he just flopped around. And my goal was to try to keep him intact, as much as possible, within the bounds of the law.

Ira Glass

What do you mean it was your goal to keep him intact? Explain that.

Francisco Calderon

Well, there's certain things you can and cannot do in the courtroom. If a person is representing themselves, they're not going to abide by the rules of evidence. And my goal was to try to make sure that he didn't say things that would prejudice the case.

Ira Glass

What were some of the things that he started to say that were improper that you had to stop him on?

Francisco Calderon

Well, he would ask, like, one of the co-defendant witnesses, "Do you think I'm guilty?" or "You knew that I wasn't using drugs." So you can't phrase questions that way or talk to the guilt or innocence of his standing. When it's time for you to tell your portion of the story, it's when you're actually testifying, not when other witnesses are testifying, which he did throughout the whole trial, basically.

Ira Glass

So how many times did you have to say objection?

Francisco Calderon

Oh, easily 50 times. I mean, there's only so much that you can do without being the bully. Obviously I don't want to give the impression to the jury that I'm trying to push this guy around.

Ira Glass

And this really gets to the heart of your problem in prosecuting the case. You don't want to seem like an ass cutting this guy off all the time, over and over, to the jury because that'll lose the jury's sympathy.

Francisco Calderon

No question about it. And it's a fine line. I tried to explain to the jurors that I'm not trying to prevent Mr. Cruz from telling his story, but there's a way that you can tell it.

Ira Glass

Damn.

Francisco Calderon

Like a prime example of one thing that stands out to me that he said was, "You know, I'm going to have to do 10 years in prison for this." That never comes out at a trial, the amount of time or exposure that someone may get for the commission of a crime.

Ira Glass

Right. It's a separate part of a trial. First you determine guilt or innocence, and then you figure out the sentence.

Francisco Calderon

That is correct. But when a defendant, while testifying, blurts out that I could do 10 years for this crime, it has an effect upon a jury. You cannot un-ring a bell.

Ira Glass

Was there any particular moment where you just thought, oh man. Suddenly where you thought, I might not win this, this is going bad?

Francisco Calderon

There was a moment, and it wasn't until after closing arguments that-- I wasn't sure if I had connected with the jury in the manner that I was used to connecting with them. And as soon as I sat down and the judge began to give his instructions, I felt it. There's a feeling, and it's very difficult to put in words and explain.

Ira Glass

No. No. I understand. You feel like you have their attention. You can tell they're with you.

Francisco Calderon

No question about it. And there is something, there is a connection that you're able to form. Whereas, in this particular case, I felt that there was a lack of connection with the jury that I've had in the past.

Ira Glass

Do you think if Cruz had a lawyer, it would have been easier to convict him?

Francisco Calderon

Absolutely. Absolutely, because I don't think there would have been that stigma of the DA pushing and pushing. When you have an opposing counsel, it's expected that there is going to be give and take.

Ira Glass

Right. If you're up against another lawyer, it's like watching two boxers box each other.

Francisco Calderon

And, like I indicated, there's expected to be give and take. And in this instance, there really was not, and there's nothing sympathetic about what I'm doing here.

Ira Glass

Did you know what the court-appointed attorney was going to do as his defense? Did he talk to you about it afterwards?

Francisco Calderon

I'm sure it would have been along the same lines, they just would not have taken the same approach. I think he would have been a little more cautious in trying to limit Mr. Cruz from testifying, I think.

Ira Glass

Wait. You're saying that a professional defense attorney would have not wanted him to talk too much because he wouldn't have wanted him to seem like a big drug addict or something?

Francisco Calderon

Correct.

Ira Glass

And that turned out to be the thing that probably won him the case.

Francisco Calderon

Well, again, had it been with an attorney representing him and he took the stand, he would not have been able to testify throughout the trial as he did.

Ira Glass

Well, in a way, he won exactly the only way that he could win. He won based on a personal appeal, by just winning people over with his personal story.

Francisco Calderon

Yeah, but that's the part that's so troubling here, because I don't view him as a person that would win someone over. So that's a troubling part of this whole case in that he didn't have that warm personality that could make a juror want to gravitate towards him. And maybe some of the jurors could maybe relate to him, but that's the most difficult part of this case for me in that I didn't find him to be a sympathetic figure. I just still haven't fully grasped that.

Ira Glass

Was it galling to you that you could be beaten by an amateur?

Francisco Calderon

Well, certainly. I mean, I have a great deal of pride in what I do, so to say that I wasn't a little miffed at it or unhappy would be an understatement. Certainly, I was not very happy about it, and to this day I'm not happy about it.

Ira Glass

Francisco Calderon is an Assistant District Attorney in Albany, New York.

Coming up, a student teacher decides to forgo all the rules and administer frontier justice that he invents on the fly. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

This is This American Life from Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we feature a theme. We bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, pro se: stories of people representing themselves in all kinds of troubles in court and out of court.

Act Three. Swak Down.

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act 3 of our program. Act 3, Swak Down. This is a story recorded on stage by Jeff Simmermon at the storytelling series The Moth. We're going to hear the story, and then Jeff Simmermon's going to come into the studio with me. A warning to listeners: there's nothing dirty or anything in the story, but some of the content might not be right for little kids.

Jeff Simmermon

So it's some time in college, and I'm going through that first big break-up that everybody goes through, that sort of marks their transition into adulthood. And I'm just sitting there on my bed. And I've got my face in my hands and I'm listening to The Smiths over and over again and just torturing myself and just going, "ooooh."

And my little sister comes into my room and sits down on the bed next to me. And she just gives me this huge hug. She puts her arms around me, and she takes a Kleenex out, and dabs my tears, and said, "Jeff, listen. Bitches gonna come and bitches gonna go. But you've been there for me since the day I was born, and that kind of love, that's forever. I'm gonna love you till after you are dead, and I am not lying."

[LAUGHTER]

For real.

[APPLAUSE AND LAUGHTER]

And then, she continues and says, "And I just wanted you to know that I have always hated that bitch. And if you want, I'll be happy, more than happy, to go around to her crib and whip her ass with a dog chain one time. You just say the word." I just took the hug.

What you need to understand is that we have the same parents. We grew up in the same home. She was in the 9th grade. Because while I was off at college studying art and listening to Sonic Youth, she and her friends were on another track. And she was invited to join a gang, but we've never been into group things, she just freelanced. And she and her friends used to break into rich people's houses. And they would drink 40s, and take pictures of it, and leave the 40s and whatever, and just leave.

[LAUGHTER]

And her boyfriend at the time, his winter coat and his mustache had this inversely proportional size relationship where his coat, sort of, advertised a faraway hockey team and he had this nasty little weasel penis draped across his top lip. And just something in his eyes was that dangerous combination of weak and predatory.

And so I was working as an art teacher at her high school as a practicum thing in order to graduate. And I'm walking down the hall one day, and I hear the laughter that I was very accustomed to hearing from back when I was in high school. And I see her boyfriend and some of his similarly parka'd friends shoving somebody into a locker. And they're just shoving him, and laughing, and shoving him, and laughing. And I get up to them, and I'm just kind of sheep-dogging kids off to class. And I'm like, what is this bull [BLEEP]. Go on! Go to class! Go! Go! Go! And I look, and the kid that they're shoving up against the locker is my little sister.

And she has that look on her face, that I know so well, where her jaw is really set and her eyes are huge and wet. And she is definitely not crying. She is fine. And having been responsible for that look in the past, I know what it takes to provoke that. And I was like, are you OK? Are you OK? Do you need me to do something? And she's like, "I'm fine! [BLEEP] I gotta go! [BLEEP]!" and then just leaves.

And I just, instantly, burn with a white-hot rage. And I have all sorts of elaborate and horrific revenge fantasies that involve roping the dude to the back of my bumper and dragging him up and down the highway. Or covering him with gas and setting him on fire, whatever.

And it's very difficult to teach that day. And I don't know what to do, but this aggression will not stand, man. I gotta do something. And then I'm coming back from my planning bell, and I'm coming up the stairs, and I see him standing there on the stairwell. And the window is open, and he's looking out the window. And he's got this dopey little smile on his open mouth. And the breeze is playfully ruffling his mullet off of his shoulders.

And I get up to him, and I just drop my hand on his shoulder, and I spin him around and I say, "Hey, man! I saw you in the hall with my sister." And then I run out of plan.

[LAUGHTER]

Because I've been spending all day daydreaming about all this awesome, cinematic stuff I want to do and not really figuring out what would happen if I actually got to confront him, which is weird since we're in the same building all day. And I can't think of anything. I'm just pulling him in closer. And I look him in the eye, I was like, "I saw you in the hall with my sister." And I want to bite his lips off and just spit them on the floor. And I can't exactly do that, so I just give him a big, long kiss right on the mouth. And I keep my eyes open, and I lock eyes with him. And I can feel his mustache against my back lip. And the whole time I'm thinking, dominate and intimidate.

[LAUGHTER]

And I pushed him back. And I was like, "Um, look, it's cool." I can't think of anything to say. And I was just like, "You can come over whenever you want. I look forward to seeing you around. Goodbye."

[LAUGHTER]

And split. And I just kind of go home. And later that night, my sister came home. And they had met up after school and had a big fight. And they'd broken up. But she looked at me, she said, "Mother [BLEEP], are you out of your rabid-ass mind? What were you even thinking?" And I said, "Jess, bitches gonna come and bitches gonna go, but you have been there for me since the day you were born. And that kind of love, that is real, and it is lifelong. And I'm gonna love you till after you are dead. And I am not even lying, for real."

[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

So Jeff, for a minute, joins me in the studio. Jeff, your story raises some important questions, and I want to go through those with you right now. First of all, why the kiss?

Jeff Simmermon

It was all that I could think of at the time. I was very limited in what I could do, you know? Had I pursued violence-- this is the kind of guy, he rolled around with a crew. Drive-bys happened in my hometown a lot. And had I beaten him up like I wanted to-- I don't really know how to beat people up-- he could have come back later with some sort of drive-by scenario. Or he could have taken his bruises, or whatever, to the administration, I could never teach again. So I had to do something that was completely off the map.

Ira Glass

Could we talk about the moment after you kiss him?

Jeff Simmermon

Sure.

Ira Glass

Were you just as surprised as he was?

Jeff Simmermon

Yes. Possibly more so.

Ira Glass

Did you know you had this in you?

Jeff Simmermon

No.

Ira Glass

And how did you feel after you did it? Did you feel like, yes, score?

Jeff Simmermon

No. I felt terrified. I felt that I am past the point of no return right now. And whatever happens, there's no counsel for me.

Ira Glass

If you had to summarize in a sentence your message to him with that kiss, like why you chose the kiss, what would you say?

Jeff Simmermon

You've opened the lid on forces that nobody knows how to deal with. Close the box and step away.

Ira Glass

So with this kid, you decide you're going to take the law into your own hands. You're going to be the one to fix this. You're going to set this right. What if you had tried to protect her in a more traditional way? You know, go to one of the other teachers, or the principal, and just get him suspended or expelled or something?

Jeff Simmermon

Because it wouldn't have worked. He wouldn't have cared. He didn't come to school enough for a suspension to be a meaningful change in his life one way or the other. I think he wouldn't have gotten the message. I don't think he would've gotten it. I think life would have continued unabated. He may have continued dating my sister, or may have continued shoving her around. Nothing would have stopped. Nothing would have changed. There had to be change.

Ira Glass

Jeff Simmermon, he does other stories on his blog, andiamnotlying.com. That's and I am not lying, all one word. Thanks, as always, to The Moth, which uses personal stories told live in front of an audience. For more Moth stories, check out the Moth's great, free, weekly podcast at themoth.org. And The Moth is starting its own radio show, The Moth Radio Hour, which will be coming to many public radio stations this August.

"KISS ME DEADLY", LITA FORD]

Act Four. Underling Gets An Underling.

Ira Glass

Act 4, Underling Gets An Underling. This is the story of somebody in a job that sounds like the kind of thing that would be, sort of, exciting. Stef Willen worked on a bunch of reality TV shows, but she was a production assistant, a PA, which is the lowest rung on the ladder. She did a lot of emptying trash cans.

Stef Willen

I remember running around town with the weirdest lists of stuff to get, like toilet paper with a specific pattern on it. I've had one boss, she would do things like ask me to hang curtains in her office. And I was like, "Oh, but your wall is made of concrete." And she was like, "Oh, you can do it." You know? Stuff like that. I would be given these bizarre tasks, and if you didn't do them right, there was always this sense of are you stupid?

Ira Glass

And so the way understand it is that towards the end you came up with a plan. Can I ask you to just describe the plan that you came up with?

Stef Willen

I just thought it would be hilarious if I came in the next day with an eager young person who was my production assistant.

Ira Glass

Oh. So you would be a PA and you would have your own PA.

Stef Willen

Exactly. Which is really unnecessary. It's a gopher with a gopher, so I don't know. I wanted to make a point. It'd just be like a little sweet revenge, you know?

Ira Glass

Right.

Stef Willen

I don't know.

Ira Glass

No. No. I understand. You'd be upsetting the natural order.

Stef Willen

Right. Totally. It's like, if you can get someone under you, it's simple math, but you are not at the bottom. I just knew that I was somehow taking control over what was happening in my life if I could put someone just right under me.

Ira Glass

So, OK. So you're a PA hiring a PA. How'd you go about it?

Stef Willen

I wrote up a Craigslist seeking a production assistant on a popular reality TV show. For the ability, I said must possess a medium work ethic, the ability to take out trash, and then sit for hours and work for free. And 21 people responded. 21 people. I was amazed.

I ended up going with this guy, I'll call him Adam. It was interesting, I hired him because I actually felt like he might be slightly delinquent. When we had our, quote, unquote, "interview," he never turned down his car radio. And it was that kind of thing. And I'm like, OK. Well, we're going to meet at the coffee shop and we're going to drive to set. "OK." I'm like, "Do you want to get out a pen and a paper and write this down?" "Oh, OK."

Ira Glass

Oh, wow. So he's really a real beginner. Like, he really was not necessarily ready for the responsibility of a--

Stef Willen

Of a phone conversation.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Or a job.

Stef Willen

Yeah. I met him at a coffee shop. And he was this nice looking young guy. And he was wearing this argyle sweater and this scarf and a beret. And I was like, "Oh, my gosh. What did I just do?"

Ira Glass

A beret?

Stef Willen

A beret. Yeah. He followed me in his car to set, and I was getting a little nervous because I actually hadn't planned anything past this point. The first person we see is the line producer, and she was frantic, as always. You know, "Come on. Come on. We've got a big day. We've got to get going." And I said, "Oh, well you'll be glad to know I have some help. This is Adam, and he is my production assistant for today." And she just sort of stopped and looked at me. And she goes, "Well, good. We need the extra help." And there was no Stef is a genius. Or, oh look what Steff did. It was, literally, like oh, thank you. Oh, we need the help. How did you get him to work for free?

Ira Glass

And so you did introduce him to your bosses?

Stef Willen

Yeah. I introduced him to everybody. I mean, I don't know why I thought that they would learn something from it, but I totally underestimated I guess, the joke, but also their need for workers. They were in production mode. They're not stopping to look at what I'm trying to say. They're like, OK. Well, we're 10 minutes behind. We can use Adam over here in hair and makeup.

Ira Glass

So you were hoping that they would get the lesson of, you see, this whole system you have is so arbitrary? And, we're not just cogs in a machine. Like, I could be a boss. And the lesson they took was not only are you all cogs in a machine, but you're such a cog, we can't even see that you're talking. Like you're not even an animal making noise here. Like, OK. Now, hand me that other animal over there.

Stef Willen

Yeah. Exactly. It's like, oh, two cogs for one. Awesome. We'll take this one, you know? I went from his boss to his sidekick to, I don't know, his buddy? I'd be like, oh, I got this trash can. So it would be really gross and disgusting, and I'm like, oh, I don't want to mess up his scarf. I made sure he ate first. Like, he got his lunch before me.

At one point, we were all sitting around the table. We'd been sitting staring at each other for about two hours, because they were filming, with nothing to do. And I looked over at Adam, and he had taken his beret off and it was on his knee. And he was, sort of, slouched down, and he was moving M&M's across his plate, one by one, with his index finger. And I think he said, "I have never not done anything for this long a time." And I was like, "Well, you know, it did say in my ad the ability to sit for hours." And he laughed.

But shortly after, I told him to go. I was like, "Well, you know, you did a great job today. Definitely send me your resume." He kept in touch, like, he would email, do you know so-and-so? Or just little questions, you know? And then, at one point, he stopped asking me questions. And I got this text from him at 8:26 AM, and it said, "I want you." Period. "I want your body." Period. "Right now." Period. And I was like, OK.

Ira Glass

What did that say to you?

Stef Willen

That he had not taken me seriously at all.

Ira Glass

So you got him into your life because nobody else took you seriously, and then even he doesn't take you seriously.

Stef Willen

Right. It just, sort of, made me laugh. I thought, OK. Well, he wants my body right now, which, 8:26 AM, that wasn't a good time for me.

Ira Glass

Stef Willen, she has quit her PA jobs. She starred in the independent film, M, which won last year's Seattle International Film Festival, and she's writing a book.

"THE JUDGEMENT", ELVIS COSTELLO]

Ira Glass

Well, the program was produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself with Alex Blumberg, Sean Cole, Jane Feltes, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our Senior Producer is Julie Snyder. Our production help from Andy Dixon and Aaron Scott. Seth Lind is our Production Manager. Music help from Jessica Hopper. And this is our last show with our very precocious intern, Andi Dixon, who we all wish the best to, whether she ends up in grad school, or a job, or what's most likely, both.

Credits.

You'll have Sky TV and a PlayStation. Nurses will bring you pizzas.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

"THE JUDGEMENT", ELVIS COSTELLO]

[MUSIC PLAYING] P- R- I, Public Radio International.