A federal judge in Washington is refusing to allow a man to represent himself in a drug trafficking case, saying he has long tried to manipulate the legal system by creating false conflicts among his lawyers to delay the case as long as possible.
The man, Gregory Sitzmann, was indicted in Washington federal district court in August 2008 on charges he participated in a cocaine distribution conspiracy that spanned more than a decade and involved at least eight countries.
Ever since charges were filed, Sitzmann has vacillated between his desire to represent himself and to have private counsel, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said in a lengthy ruling published Monday night.
Friedman recounts the history of the case, documenting the numerous letters Sitzmann has written over the years about his dissatisfaction with his lawyers. Sitzmann, Friedman ruled, has not “clearly and unequivocally asserted his right to proceed pro se.” Prosecutors were opposed to allowing Sitzmann to represent himself.
“Throughout this case, Mr. Sitzmann has demonstrated that his interest is not truly in representing himself,” Friedman said. “He has engaged in a pattern of vacillation, delay and manipulation, embracing new counsel until the case is ready to go forward, then manufacturing conflicts and besmirching his attorneys’ characters in an attempt to replace them and further delay his case.”
Friedman said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has not confronted the circumstance that Sitzmann’s case presents.
But, the judge said, other federal appellate courts have addressed a situation where a defendant “repeatedly alternates between requesting to proceed pro se or to be represented by counsel.” Those courts, Friedman said, have concluded that a defendant who vacillates on the issue waive the right to self-representation.
Friedman said Sitzmann’s “many contradictory requests stray so far from ‘clear and unequivocal’ they verge on the opaque.” The judge said Sitzmann “consistently has used requests to retain new counsel or to proceed pro se as a means of manipulating the court and his counsel; to delay his case; and potentially to create an issue on appeal.”
Friedman also rejected Sitzmann’s request that he get new court-appointed counsel. His lawyer, Thomas Abbenante, a solo practitioner in the District, declined to comment this morning.
Sitzmann and Abbenante haven’t always gotten along. In one instance, Sitzmann, according to Friedman, manufactured a conflict of interest. Sitzmann alleged that Abenante was planning to violate the law in taking the ashes of a deceased friend to Italy to spread the remains at the Vatican.
Prosecutors researched the issue and determined that the transport of remains on an airplane does not break federal law. The federal transportation agency has issued guidance that passengers are allowed to bring cremated remains on an airplane. Prosecutors said Sitzmann’s allegations were designed to create a conflict of interest.
Jury selection is scheduled for next April.