On any given Wednesday in District Court, Judge Amanda Maris settles into her high-backed chair and begins to read names.
“Todd Burgess,” she calls out on this particular Wednesday, September 4. And then “Dinelle Allen.” And then others. When Judge Maris finishes her list, 12 people have shuffled to the front of the courtroom, facing her in a slipshod line. Most are young, black, and male.
One by one, Judge Maris calls out a name and begins reciting her script.
“You’ve been charged with…” she addresses each one, filling in the blank with “larceny” or “misdemeanor assault” or something similar.
“This is a serious offense,” the judge continues. “What would you like to do about a lawyer?”
“Court-appointed lawyer,” the first defendant mutters. “Court-appointed,” says the next. Eleven times, I hear “Court-appointed, your Honor.”
But when the last of the 12 stands alone in front of Judge Maris, she surprises everyone in the courtroom.
“I’ll represent myself, thank you,” the young woman says.
She is Davionna Mack, a slender 21-year-old with a pair of red streaks in her dark hair and chunky gold earrings hanging down to her neck.
Mack is charged with injury to real property, a first-degree misdemeanor. If she’s found guilty, she could spend up to four months in jail.
But representing herself is risky. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Judge Maris asks after hearing Mack’s decision, raising her eyebrows at the young woman. “That could be a problem if the victim comes to court.”
Mack knows that, and she isn’t contesting her guilt. “This girl I know came over to my car in the middle of the night and busted out my windows,” she tells me after her appearance. “So I went to her house and busted hers.”
But Mack also knows how the criminal justice system works. If she accepts a court-appointed lawyer and is found guilty, she’ll have to pay back all the money spent on her defense. That’s on top of the $173 in “General Court of Justice” fees she already owes to the court, just by appearing in front of Judge Maris.
So Mack will represent herself. If all goes well, she says, the woman whose windows she broke won’t show up to court. Then, her case will likely be dismissed. But if the woman does show up?
“I’d still rather represent and speak for myself than to have an attorney speak for me,” Mack says.
Back in the courtroom, Judge Maris questions Mack one more time. “You’re sure this is what you want to do?”
“I want to represent myself,” Mack repeats. Judge Maris shrugs and waves the young woman out of court, to await the date she’ll take to the well and represent herself.
“I’m nervous,” Mack admits. “I want to speak for myself. But, you know, this is my freedom on the line.”