A state appeals court has cleared the way for a former janitor to take the highly unusual move of representing himself against capital charges that he set a bookkeeper on fire after a dispute over a $150 check.
Jonathan Daniel D'Arcy, 32, of La Habra faces a possible death sentence if convicted of the Feb. 2, 1993, death of Karen Marie LaBorde, 42, of Orange.
D'Arcy, who was found mentally fit to stand trial last year after a psychiatric evaluation, has repeatedly asked to represent himself, in part because he wants to take his defense in a direction his lawyers "don't want to go," according to the appellate ruling.
"For better or worse, a defendant in a criminal case has a constitutional right to self-representation," Justice Thomas F. Crosby Jr. wrote in the seven-page decision by the 4th District Court of Appeal released Thursday.
While the court noted that D'Arcy has been "uncooperative in the past and obviously has little trust in lawyers or the legal system," the justices said there is nothing in his record to suggest that he is "incompetent to waive his right to counsel."
"Indeed, to make it crystal clear to the Superior Court: If defendant is competent to stand trial, he is competent to represent himself," the justices wrote.
The ruling overturns a decision by Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald that denied D'Arcy's request for self-representation. The judge cited D'Arcy's past diagnosis of an antisocial personality disorder and "the apparent hostility (he exhibited) to the court on many previous occasions."
A hearing will be held later this month at which D'Arcy will be asked if he still wants to represent himself. If so, he will be entitled to a court-appointed attorney for legal advice and an investigator. But he will be advised, among other things, that as his own lawyer he will give up his right to claim ineffective representation in an appeal.
The ruling also says that D'Arcy could lose his right to represent himself should he act out in court.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Gregory L. Prickett said that he could not recall any local defendants ever representing themselves in a death penalty case. Only a handful of Orange County defendants are known to have represented themselves in other types of murder trials.
Just recently, Paul Hill, the former preacher who shot and killed a doctor and his unarmed escort at a Florida abortion clinic, was sentenced to die in that state's electric chair after a trial in which he acted as his own lawyer.
Prosecutors say D'Arcy's probable self-representation raises several concerns, including the trauma some witnesses may experience being questioned by him.
"We recognize that Mr. D'Arcy has a right to represent himself, but we want to make sure that justice is done here and a jury makes an appropriate determination based on all the relevant facts," Prickett said. "We just want to make sure that his rights are protected while our rights our protected, to receive a fair trial."
Court-appointed attorneys Paul G. Stark and Edward W. Hall, who have represented D'Arcy in recent months, said they stand by his request for self-representation and assisted him with the appellate case.
"It's his constitutional right," Stark said. "I'm not going to stand in his way. . . . I only wish him the best of luck. I think the prosecution is wrong in seeking the death penalty in this case. I don't think he intended to hurt anyone, based on the evidence we've seen."
Witnesses have said that D'Arcy forced his way into LaBorde's office in a Tustin building maintenance company, doused her with gasoline from a plastic drink container, ignited it and then walked away as flames engulfed her. Prosecutors have contended that D'Arcy, a contract maintenance worker for the company, was enraged over a late payment of $150 he claimed the company owed him.