Inside Report: Client who fired counsel seeks new trial

It has long been said that a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.

But East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors contend Anthony Bell knew precisely what he was doing, and what was on the line, when he fired his court-appointed attorneys and represented himself at the guilt phase of his May 2008 capital murder trial.

State District Judge Todd Hernandez warned Bell he was making a “grave mistake” but ruled at the conclusion of a February 2008 pretrial hearing that he could fire his attorneys and represent himself. After the hearing, Margaret Lagattuta — one of the public defenders Bell fired — described Bell’s decision as foolish.

Three months later, a jury unanimously convicted Bell on five counts of first-degree murder in the May 2006 shooting deaths of his wife and four of her relatives, prompting him to ask Hernandez to reinstate the lawyers for the penalty phase of his trial. The judge, who had allowed the lawyers to act as Bell’s standby counsel during the guilt phase, granted his request.

Jurors nevertheless unanimously recommended Bell die by lethal injection.

His latest attorneys filed court papers in January claiming the 33-year-old Bell — who had only a ninth-grade education — wasn’t mentally competent to stand trial, let alone represent himself.

“Anthony’s trial was truly a travesty of justice,” his attorneys allege. “Allowing Anthony to be condemned to die … would be an affront to, and make a mockery of, our criminal justice system.”

Assistant district attorneys Allison Rutzen and Mark Dumaine disagree and argue in a recently filed opposition to Bell’s supplemental petition for post-conviction relief that the defendant’s decision to represent himself was not made with his eyes shut.

“(He) knew exactly what he was doing and what was at stake,” they claim.

Bell’s petition seeks a reversal of his convictions and death sentences, and a new trial.

His attorneys maintain he is brain-damaged and suffers from bipolar disorder, a mental illness. The U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of the mentally retarded, now referred to as intellectually disabled.

Two mental health experts who examined Bell before he was tried concluded he was competent to stand trial for his crimes. A third expert found he was not, but he suggested Bell may have been malingering — or trying to fool authorities into thinking he was more impaired than he actually was.

“The retardation issue was presented to the jury and the jury properly rejected it,” Rutzen and Dumaine point out.

The prosecutors acknowledge that two of the doctors determined Bell exhibited below-average intelligence but found he had “zero evidence of mental impairment of any kind.”

Jurors can consider a person’s ability to function in society when weighing the issue of mental impairment, and Rutzen and Dumaine note that Bell’s work history included being a stocker at Winn-Dixie, a cashier/stocker at Piggly Wiggly and a tank truck washer and rack supervisor for A&R Transport Co.

The prosecutors also contend Bell was “stealthily prepared” for his trial. They say he posed relevant questions to all witnesses; carefully requested particular pieces of evidence and followed up those requests with appropriate questions; made objections and provided supporting arguments; presented passionate opening statements and closing arguments, attempting to rebut each and every point made by the prosecution; and displayed an impressive vocabulary in the process.

In the end, Rutzen and Dumaine contend Bell came off as an “unsympathetic client” who tried to blame his wife for gunning down her grandparents, great-aunt and second cousin inside a Dallas Drive church and then turning the gun on herself in an apartment complex parking lot.

Joe Gyan Jr. covers courts for The Advocate. He can be reached at jgyan@theadvocate.com.