MARENGO — Jury selection starts Tuesday for a woman who demanded the right to defend herself in the fatal shooting of a Monroe truck driver in 2017.
Public defenders and prosecutors questioned the competency of Mariana Lesnic, 44, of unknown address according to police, but a mental evaluation conducted in March determined she was competent to stand trial. She has admitted that she doesn’t understand the rules in a trial regarding procedures and evidence but insisted on being her own lawyer.
Lesnic is charged with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Ernest Kummer, 60, who was found dead from a gunshot wound to his head inside the sleep cab of his semi-trailer truck about 2:37 a.m. Sept. 6, 2017. The truck was parked at the westbound Interstate 80 rest stop near Victor, according to a search warrant affidavit.
Lesnic called 911 about the shooting, court documents show. She confessed to shooting Kummer, telling authorities she was “sick over it.” Lesnic said the small, semi-automatic gun was in her purse, which was found on the ground next to her at the scene.
Police haven’t released a motive for the shooting or the nature of the relationship between Lesnic and Kummer.
In more than one hearing, 6th Judicial District Judge Andrew Chappell has gone over the dangers and pitfalls of Lesnic being her own lawyer. Chappell, in a ruling, said it’s “ill-advised” but he points out the Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to self-representation as well as the right to counsel.
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Chappell did appoint a standby counsel, Trevor Anderson, a Des Moines public defender, because Lesnic admitted during one of the previous hearings that she lacked the basic understanding of criminal procedure and rules of evidence — how a trial is conducted and what is and is not allowed.
“In her own statements to the court, she indicated she will need someone to help her know when it is appropriate for her to speak, and when it is her turn to present evidence,” Chappell said in the ruling.
Eric Tindal, an Iowa City attorney who first talked with Lesnic about her decision to be her own lawyer, said Monday the standby counsel can answer questions on procedures and rules of evidence, and suggest questions to ask or not to ask.
The judge has discretion on how much a standby counsel participates, but typically it’s “all in or all out” — meaning a defendant has to self-represent all the way through trial, Tindal said. He said he has seen some cases where a lawyer has taken over after the trial started but that would be up to the judge.
Tindal said it’s just a “terrible idea.” It’s not just the difficulties of understanding all the rules but it is “hard to analyze the case when you’re in the middle of it.” A defendant needs a neutral prospective, he said.
“It’s hard to advocate in an effective way when you’re emotionally involved in the case,” Tindal said.
Tindal was appointed to counsel Lesnic after she decided to represent herself. He asked the judge for a competency evaluation based on his meetings with her. Dr. Abraham Assad, a psychiatrist with the Iowa Medical Classification Center in Coralville, said in March that Lesnic “does not appear to be suffering from any mental illness at this time.”
Iowa County Attorney Tim McMeen requested the court have Lesnic wear a “shock” belt, which the Iowa County Sheriff’s Office requires, during the trial. The belt, which is worn underneath clothing and not visible, is controlled by a deputy who will be in the courtroom, according to court documents.
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Judge Chappell denied the request, saying the prosecutor didn’t provide a reason that deputies couldn’t provide adequate security, and Lesnic has no history of being a security risk while in the courtroom.
Prosecutors are planning to start their case Tuesday afternoon and expect the trial to go all week in Iowa County District Court.
If convicted, Lesnic faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
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