Accused Mar-a-Lago Infiltrator Allowed to Represent Herself

(Bloomberg) -- A Chinese woman charged with unlawfully entering President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida will be allowed to represent herself in court, as she snubbed having an attorney defend her against the charges.

During a hearing in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, a judge granted Yujing Zhang’s request to represent herself, appointing the public defenders’ office to serve as stand-by counsel to sit behind her in court for consultation and in case she changes her mind.

Accused Mar-a-Lago Infiltrator Allowed to Represent Herself

“I can do it by myself,” Zhang said in court.

U.S. District Judge Roy Altman was skeptical. “I strongly urge you not to try to represent yourself in this case,” he told her.

Zhang was detained March 30 and formally charged in April with entering Mar-a-Lago without permission and lying to the Secret Service. She faces as many as six years in prison for both charges. She brought four mobile phones, a laptop, an external hard drive and a thumb drive to the resort.

The case raised concerns about security at the president’s getaway in South Florida, where he regularly conducts official business and spends time with his family. Prosecutor Rolando Garcia has since had to backtrack on claims that Zhang’s cache of electronics contained malware, saying the finding may have been based upon a “false positive.”

Zhang’s decision to represent herself adds a new level of intrigue to her case and could signal how chaotic a jury trial could be. She mostly skipped her right to simultaneous translation from her native Mandarin and instead spoke directly in imperfect English to the judge, repeatedly asking for clarifications of a word or a sentence.

At the outset of Tuesday’s hearing, Zhang asked that the judge introduce her to everyone at the “meeting,” including the court reporter and the members of the public seated in the back. He complied with the unusual request, introducing the key figures in the courtroom, though he didn’t give everyone’s name.

Zhang said she had studied Chinese law and some American law. However, in a series of exchanges with the judge, she was unable to understand rudimentary terms including “cross examine” and “counsel.” At times, she had to be scolded for slouching in her seat and not speaking into the microphone. At others, she broke court protocol by answering the judge with inaudible gestures or “mmhmm.”

During a hearing that lasted for more than an hour, the judge explained the complexities of a federal jury trial, including sentencing guidelines, jury selection and the federal rules of evidence, as if to underscore how difficult it would be for Zhang to successfully represent herself.

The judge asked if she’d been coerced in any way into firing her lawyers, and she said she hadn’t.

Kristy Militello, Zhang’s public defender, called her decision to fire her attorney “ill-advised.” Militello said she’d recently attempted to give Zhang evidence provided by the prosecution, but the defendant had apparently rejected it. Still, Militello said she saw no signs that Zhang lacked mental competency.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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