MARENGO — A woman, accused of fatally shooting a Monroe truck driver last year, admits she doesn’t understand the rules in a trial regarding evidence and procedures but insists on being her own lawyer.
Mariana Lesnic, 44, was found competent last month and 6th Judicial District Judge Andrew Chappell granted her request a lengthy warning about all the dangers and pitfalls of representing herself, along with several questions from prosecutors.
Lesnic, of unknown address according to police, 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. The truck was parked at the westbound Interstate 80 rest stop near Victor, according to a search warrant affidavit.
Lesnic was the person who called 911 about the shooting, court documents show. She told police she shot Kummer and was “sick over it.” Lesnic told officers 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.
Her trial is set to start Aug. 28 in Iowa County District Court.
Chappell, in his ruling, said the court can appoint standby counsel to assist the defendant, even over the defendant’s objections, in preparation and during the trial. While Lesnic’s decision to be her own lawyer is “voluntary, knowing and intelligent,” last month’s hearing demonstrated she lacks 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.
Chappell also said in the ruling that 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. But he also was going to appoint standby counsel.
Trevor Andersen, a public defender in Des Moines, was appointed to be Lesnic’s standby counsel, who will clarify questions for her on any legal issues, Chappell said in the ruling. Andersen may also assist her with pretrial motions and answer questions during trial. He can only assist, not takeover serving as her lawyer, according to the ruling.
Mike Lahammer, Cedar Rapids defense attorney, said most attorneys would advise an individual against self-representation, especially when facing a felony, and one such as a murder charge.
Lahammer said the defendant risks self-incrimination — “saying the wrong thing at the right time.” A defendant also doesn’t know the intricacies of the law and the court can’t assist during a trial, Lahammer pointed out. Appointing standby counsel alleviates some of the risk but the lawyer is only allowed to assist — not try the case.
Lahammer said when people think about legal proceedings they might just consider it’s a plea or going to trial but an attorney will know many options that will help the defendant before it gets to trial. There can be cases where evidence could be suppressed — kept out of trial — such as an interview with police for possible rights violations or other options that can limit what prosecutors can use as evidence.
“It’s very dangerous to represent yourself, especially when facing a possible life sentence,” Lahammer said.
Lesnic has never said or it isn’t in public court documents why she insists on being her own lawyer. Last year, she first wrote a letter to the court, saying she didn’t want the Johnson County public defenders to represent her. She was “unhappy” with them and their plans to defend her, according to her letter filed in Iowa County District Court.
Eric Tindal, an Iowa City lawyer appointed to counsel Lesnic on representing herself, asked the judge in December for a competency evaluation based on his meetings with Lesnic. He had talked with her several times and for multiple hours about the court process and her decision to represent herself.
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Lesnic was found competent to stand trial in March. Dr. Abraham Assad, a psychiatrist with the Iowa Medical Classification Center in Coralville, said she “does not appear to be suffering from any mental illness at this time.”
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