Criminal defendants have the right to represent themselves in any federal case and in almost all 50 states. Defending oneself is called "pro se" or "pro per" representation. Though the common perception is that going pro se is a terrible idea and only the mentally unbalanced would even attempt it, an empirical study published in the North Carolina Law Review (Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 423-487, January 2007) found that pro se defendants often do just as well as, if not better than, their represented counterparts, and the vast majority show no signs of mental illness.

How to Defend Yourself in Criminal Court Without an Attorney

  1. Use resources. Defending yourself doesn't necessarily mean going it alone. Before you step foot in the courthouse, consult with all available self-help resources, such as those provided by your local court, public-interest groups and the local bar association. A good public library will also have many resources for the criminal defendant.
  2. Step 2
    Use forms. The court system uses standard pleading formats for very good reasons. It streamlines the work of the court and makes it easier for all parties involved to understand what's been filed. Never file a pleading that's made up from whole cloth out of your imagination, or rely on some obscure writ or form from another jurisdiction or period of history. The standards are described in the Rules of Criminal Procedure published by the court, and these are encoded in the standard forms for the jurisdiction that are provided by public-interest groups or available from the court.
  3. Step 3
    Understand the charge. Every criminal defendant has the right to known each specific charge for which he is being tried. As a pro se defendant, it's up to you to understand exactly how the law defines the criminal acts that constitute these charges. The goal of any criminal defense is to present the facts of the case in such a way as to create a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crimes as charged.
  4. Step 4
    Learn the rules of evidence. Criminal cases are often won or lost based on the evidence that actually makes it before the jury. The standard of evidence for establishing probable cause is much lower than for a criminal trial, and it's quite likely that at least some of the prosecution's evidence can be thrown out. But without a proper objection, there's a good chance that evidence will be admitted and can therefore influence the jury. At the same time, understanding the rules of evidence will help you in getting evidence in your defense before the jury's eyes and ears.
  5. Step 5

    Show your best side. At all times, avoid being petty, unduly argumentative and/or obstructionist. From the moment she enters the courtroom, a professional litigator works to establish and maintain credibility with the judge and jury, and to win their trust. You should do the same, presenting the best, most reasoned side of yourself.
  6. Step 6
    Consider testifying. As a pro se defendant, you cannot give the court your side of the story unless you call yourself to the stand and are sworn in. The risk with this approach is that the defense then gets the opportunity to cross-examine you, and they will certainly be trying to ruin your credibility or question your version of events. On the other hand, getting your testimony into the record and in front of the jury can be one of the most effective ways of making your case, depending on the circumstances.