A Pulaski County judge on Tuesday denied a request from an eight-time absconder to represent himself in a capital murder trial next month, saying that allowing him to handle the case would be a "disaster."
Darrell Dennis, who is also facing charges of kidnapping and aggravated robbery in the May 10 death of 18-year-old Forrest Abrams, is scheduled to go to trial Sept. 22.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza last year approved a motion from Dennis to have public defenders who had been appointed to his case removed. Attorney Bill James was then appointed to take over his defense. But Dennis on multiple subsequent occasions complained about James' representation, accusing him of not doing enough and of cooperating with prosecutors.
On Tuesday, in his last scheduled hearing before trial, Dennis reiterated a request to represent himself. He later said he didn't "want" to take the step.
"But I feel like I'm in a position where I about have to," he said.
The judge questioned Dennis on a number of fronts, asking about his education, his knowledge of the rules of evidence and whether he was prepared to go forward "on [his] own." Dennis, who said he received his high school diploma in prison, said he had read about trial work in the prison library and wanted to represent himself.
"Do you understand the gravity of this situation?" Piazza asked at one point.
"Somewhat," Dennis replied.
Piazza noted that Dennis, who is in custody, wouldn't be able to interview witnesses and do other work lawyers typically undertake before a trial.
"For you to represent yourself, I think would be a disaster," Piazza told him.
Prosecutors noted appellate courts and the state Supreme Court have provided mixed decisions about whether a judge can overrule a defendant's desire to go forward without counsel. But Piazza cited the gravity of the charges — and the requisite life term without parole a conviction would bring — in denying Dennis' motion.
"It's my impression that he is incapable of handling this type of case," Piazza said. "And it's also my impression he has a good lawyer in Mr. James."
James said he was prepared to continue on the case and the hearing continued on with other motions, including the admissibility of a photo lineup in which Dennis was identified by witnesses as a suspect.
Dennis was arrested less than 30 hours after his release from the Pulaski County jail, where he had been held on an absconder warrant. A June 17, 2013, article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette revealed the lengthy parole-violation history of Dennis before his arrest, sparking a systemwide review of the state parole system that in turn led to a change in leadership and numerous policy shifts.
That in turn has led to a major backlog of state inmates being housed in county jails, including Pulaski County's. That facility for two separate stretches has shut its doors to offenders charged with nonviolent, minor offenses.
See Wednesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for more on this story.