The upcoming trial of a Chinese national on federal charges that she trespassed at President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort and lied to the Secret Service is potentially a circus wrapped in mystery.
Rejecting the strong recommendation of U.S. District Judge Roy Altman, Yujing Zhang fired her public defenders in June to act as her own attorney - a longshot move the 33-year-old Shanghai business consultant has struggled with during pretrial hearings setting up Monday's scheduled jury selection.
Zhang often frustrates Altman by ignoring his questions or answering with non sequiturs. At times she replies in near-fluent English and insists she understands complex legal concepts, but will then say she doesn't understand a simple question and turns to her Mandarin translator.
"I know full well that you understand what I am saying to you both in English and in Mandarin," Altman told her during an August hearing. "You are trying to play games."
U.S. & World
If that weren't enough, prosecutors have filed under seal secret evidence that they say has national security implications, even though Zhang is not charged with espionage. The Secret Service said when agents detained Zhang at Mar-a-Lago she was carrying a computer, a hard drive, four cellphones and a thumb drive containing malware, although agents later recanted that accusation.
Agents said Zhang told them she brought the electronics to Mar-a-Lago because she feared they would be stolen if left at her nearby hotel, but in her room they allegedly found a device to detect hidden cameras, computers, $8,000 in cash plus credit and debit cards, all in the open.
Attempts to contact Zhang in jail, where she is being held without bail, were unsuccessful, and the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment. The U.S. attorney's office in Miami declined comment. Zhang could get six years if convicted.
Her former public defenders are on standby in case she changes her mind about representing herself. They have said she appears mentally competent, but she wouldn't speak to a psychologist. They said Zhang's Chinese relatives told them she has no mental health problems.
Zhang was arrested March 30 after she allegedly lied to get past a Secret Service agent guarding Mar-a-Lago, saying she was there to use the pool. She made it to the lobby where she told a receptionist she was there for a United Nations friendship event that night and had come early to take pictures. That event had been canceled and prosecutors say Zhang had been informed. The president was staying at Mar-a-Lago that weekend, but was at his nearby golf club when Zhang arrived.
While there are no statistics, it is rare for defendants charged with serious felonies to represent themselves - go "pro se" in legal parlance - and that's particularly true in federal court. Even with an experienced defense attorney, federal acquittals are rare. According to the Pew Research Center , 90% of federal defendants pleaded guilty in 2018 and 8% had their cases dismissed. Of the 2% who went to trial, eight out of 10 were convicted.
University of Florida law professor Michelle Jacobs, a former criminal defense lawyer, and Miami attorney David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, said Altman's job will be more difficult because Zhang doesn't know trial procedure or rules. If she makes a major error that slips by, that could lead to a guilty verdict being thrown out on appeal. Altman will likely slow the trial so Zhang can keep up.
Weinstein said prosecutors will find the case more difficult because not only do they also have to watch out for reversible errors Zhang might make, their "vanity" is at stake.
"It is one thing to lose to a defense attorney; it is quite another to lose a case to a pro se defendant," he said.
Jacobs wondered if Zhang fired her public defenders because she comes from an authoritarian country and thought their job was to help ensure her conviction, even though Altman explained their role numerous times.
"The expectation might be that the state will do what the state does and whether you participate or not," Jacobs said, "the end of the trial is a foregone conclusion."