By Mia Machado
SACRAMENTO, CA – When defendant Leanna Berryman’s alleged defense attorney named “Peter Piper” failed to appear for counsel appointment, Berryman decided to represent herself pro per.
But, after much persuasion, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette managed to change her mind.
Berryman was in court this week for the counsel appointment of her felony car theft case. Wearing a white crop top that revealed the lower part of her stomach, she was immediately reprimanded by the bailiff.
Seeing as no one was present, Judge Marlette asked the defendant if she had hired an attorney or if she needed to be appointed a public defender. When Berryman said she had her own attorney for the case, Judge Marlette asked for his name.
“His name is Peter Piper,” she said.
Not recognizing the name, Judge Marlette asked Berryman to spell out the name of her attorney. “Peter Piper? I don’t know an attorney named Peter Piper,” Judge Marlette replied plainly, “is that in Sacramento?”
(NOTE: Despite the judge’s doubts, a quick bar search turned up a Sacramento Attorney, Peter Dean Piper, Bar #308916, listed as an attorney with the Children’s Law Center).
When she confirmed that he was from Sacramento, Judge Marlette questioned why her attorney was not present in court.
“I didn’t call him. I didn’t think I needed him for this case,” Berryman explained.
“Well, are you planning on hiring him?” asked the judge, becoming visibly frustrated—he wanted answers.
The defendant explained that if the case needed another hearing, then she would. Speaking to Assistant Public Defender Meredith Nikkel, Judge Marlette concluded that the defendant was not able to secure her own counsel.
“I’m not sure if it’s a money issue, but she’s just not able to get a lawyer in here, and doesn’t seem to have a plan to do that,” he concluded. The defendant interrupted, explaining that she “thought it would be good to represent herself.”
After a pause, Judge Marlette proposed to the defendant two options: Berryman could hire a lawyer, or she could represent herself. Berryman revealed that instead of calling her lawyer, she wanted to represent herself.
“All right, well, let me tell you this. It’s generally a bad idea to represent yourself,” Judge Marlette warned. “You will be opposed by a trained prosecutor, who knows the laws, who knows the juries, who knows this court system.” He explained that in her felony car theft case, if convicted, she could be in custody for up to three years.
When she expressed that she understood the possible sentencing exposure, Judge Marlette asked if she had any legal training or had been to law school.
“I’m in law school right now,” she responded. When he asked where she was going to school, the defendant explained that she was attending AIU, an online law school.
“Is that particularly for law?” Judge Marlette asked. She confirmed that it was.
In fact, AIU, or the American Intercontinental University, is a flexible online learning college where students can receive various bachelor’s and master’s degrees in different fields. AIU offers a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree in criminal justice.
To ensure that the defendant understood the consequences of going pro per, Judge Marlette asked if she understood that the court would not help her present her case or grant her “any special treatment.
“You must behave just as a lawyer must, do you understand that?” Judge Marlette pressed.
“Yes,” she responded.
In an attempt to dissuade the defendant, Judge Marlette asked a series of questions to confirm she understood the consequences of going pro per. He advised her that she would need to comply with all the rules of current procedure and evidence, and that, if convicted, she cannot appeal based on the claim that she was not competent to represent herself.
He explained that if she was “disruptive or unduly delaying the case” an attorney would be brought in to finish her case—but would not be given extra time to come up to speed.
When she repeated once more that she understood, Judge Marlette asked, “This is what you want to do, huh?”
Suddenly, Berryman had a change of heart. “I do want to bring my attorney into this one,” the defendant replied.
“You want to have your attorney in this case?” Judge Marlette clarified.
“Yes I do,” the defendant laughed nervously. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t prepare for this at all,” she said.
Judge Marlette paused for a moment, trying to decide what to do. Suddenly the bailiff interjected once more to tell the defendant that she needed to wear a shirt with more coverage.
“I already told her to wear a full shirt to court, I think she wore a half top last time as well. You need to stop doing that,” the bailiff warned. After gathering his thoughts, Judge Marlette agreed with the bailiff that if the defendant comes to court, she needs to be properly dressed.
“If you’re not, I’m going to find that you are in direct contempt of court and I can fine you up to $500,” he warned, and “that means nobody is going to be able to see your stomach.”
After warning her about her clothing, Judge Marlette confessed to “not quite being able to get a sense of communicating” with the defendant.
“You’re telling me your lawyer’s name is Peter Piper?” he asked, “now what’s gonna happen if I look in the directory search and I don’t find any lawyer in California named Peter Piper?”
The defendant explained that the alleged Peter Piper is an attorney for Children’s Hope, whom she used as an attorney when she was in the foster system. “I’m not a bad person, I’m not a criminal,” Berryman explained.
“We’re not talking about that, we’re talking about you moving on in a case where you could spend three years in custody, and I don’t want that to happen,” Judge Marlette explained, “so I’m trying to figure out how to get you represented and get your rights protected.”
Judge Marlette decided to continue her case to July 14, to give Berryman one more chance to have her lawyer, Peter Piper, appear in court.
He warned once more that if she was not properly dressed he would fine her, and added that if she arrived without her attorney, he would appoint a public defender.
Mia Machado is a junior at UC Davis, currently majoring in Political Science-Public Service and minoring in Luso-Brazilian studies. She is originally from Berkeley, California. She is a team member on the Chesa Boudin Recall – Changing the Narrative Project.
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