Suspect to represent himself at trial in girlfriend's murder


A man who faces life in prison without parole for the slaying of his girlfriend will represent himself at his Howard Circuit Court trial in September, despite a judge's warning that such a decision is foolish.

Marvin Philander Smith of Baltimore dismissed his public defender and then waived his right to have an attorney during a hearing before Judge Cornelius Sybert Jr. yesterday.

Mr. Smith will be the first defendant to represent himself in a murder case in Howard County in at least 15 years, according to court officials.

"I think it would be wrong for you to proceed without an attorney," Judge Sybert told Mr. Smith. "There is a possibility that you will spend the rest of your life behind bars."

Mr. Smith, 37, is charged with first-degree murder in the beating death of 38-year-old Vanessa Armstead, a Baltimore woman whose body was discovered floating in the shallow waters of the Rocky Gorge Reservoir in Scaggsville by fishermen on April 13, 1993. His trial is scheduled for Sept. 12.

Mr. Smith wanted Judge Sybert to dismiss Assistant Public Defender Daniel Shemer and appoint a private attorney who would be paid by the court to handle his case.

But Judge Sybert said he doesn't believe Mr. Smith provided enough reasons for him to dismiss Mr. Shemer. The judge added that the court doesn't have the money to hire a private attorney. He advised Mr. Smith to keep Mr. Shemer as his attorney and put aside their personality conflicts.

But Mr. Shemer noted that a defendant has the final say in deciding whether to have a lawyer -- regardless of the judge's ruling -- and Mr. Smith then waived his rights to have an attorney.

The state Office of the Public Defender withdrew from the case after Mr. Smith dismissed Mr. Shemer. Mr. Shemer said in a hearing last week that he would be willing to represent Mr. Smith if the defendant agreed to cooperate with him.

But Mr. Smith told Judge Sybert that he is unhappy with the way Mr. Shemer is preparing for his defense, saying the attorney hasn't shown much interest in his case.

"He's not working in my behalf," Mr. Smith said. "If mistakes are going to be made, they're going to be made by me -- not him."

One of the issues in dispute between Mr. Smith and Mr. Shemer is the way DNA evidence should be presented at the trial. The DNA tests show that Mr. Smith's blood was not found at the murder scene, according to Mr. Shemer.

The lawyer said he prefers to present the DNA results in a statement with the prosecution that would be read to the jury. Mr. Smith said he prefers having DNA experts on hand to testify about the results.

Mr. Shemer was Mr. Smith's third public defender since he was arrested last summer. The first attorney withdrew because he was transferred to Baltimore County. The next one withdrew because of a conflict of interest.

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