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Hassan faulted on attempts to defend self ; Experts say ploy plays into prosecutors' hand

Local trial and criminal defense lawyers have many adjectives to describe the attempt by Muzzammil S. Hassan to represent himself in his own murder trial: arrogant, ignorant, disastrous, stupid.

Well, you get the picture.

Legal experts following one of the most riveting murder trials in Buffalo history express uniform disapproval of Hassan's attempt to serve as his own lawyer and showing contempt for his trial by stalking out of court.

"I think everything he's done is going to play into the hands of the prosecution," said defense lawyer Paul J. Cambria Jr.

Joseph J. Terranova, a criminal defense lawyer who has probably tried more murder cases than any other lawyer in the region, was even more blunt.

"It's pathetic, and it's so absolutely counterproductive," he said. "Why not just slit your throat in front of the jury?"

Hassan, also known as "Mo," is charged with stabbing and beheading his wife, Aasiya, on Feb. 12, 2009, in the headquarters of their Bridges television station in Orchard Park.

Defense attorneys say working with an uncooperative client always is a miserable experience, particularly when those clients think they know better than their lawyer about how to mount a strong defense.

When Hassan was hunting for a high-profile defense lawyer, Terranova said, many turned him down because they anticipated he would be too difficult to manage as a client. And that has proven to be the case.

"I think there's a tendency among some defendants to distrust their counsel, especially those who are used to being in control," he said, "and that appears to be the nature of this individual."

"I think everyone in their career has encountered, or will encounter, a client that tries to run the defense because it's their case and they are intimately involved in the case," trial lawyer Terrence M. Connors said. "The client can know the facts and what occurred, but how to properly convey that to a jury is solely, and should solely be, in a lawyer's domain."

A number of defense lawyers said Hassan's behavior in the courtroom only supports the prosecution's contention that the defendant is a controlling and manipulative person capable of extreme acts when his control is threatened.

Since Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk has refused to let Hassan represent himself or fire Jeremy D. Schwartz as his defense lawyer, Hassan's options for control over his situation are limited, Terranova said.

"The only control he has now, as far as he's concerned, is, 'I'm going to remove myself from the courtroom. I can take my toys home and refuse to play,' " he said.

In his 29 years as a criminal defense attorney, Terranova has handled six to seven murder cases a year, taking many of them to trial.

He has had cases in which clients have represented themselves or tried to represent themselves, undoing all the hard work their lawyer had put into a case.

"To watch somebody screw it up before your eyes is very difficult," he said.

Demanding to represent yourself at trial tells jurors something defendants shouldn't want the jury to know, he said.

"It shows an arrogance and an ignorance, all at the same time, of something that not many people are very skilled at," he said. "Only 5 percent of all lawyers call themselves criminal lawyers, and only a fraction of those call themselves trial lawyers."

He and other experienced defense lawyers said they anticipate more of the same behavior from Hassan next week, should he decide to reappear in court.

"My prediction is, he will continue to deteriorate," Terranova said. "He will not be able to control himself in court to the extent that he can mount any sort of defense."

During the first two days of trial, Hassan has played an active role in his defense, taking copious notes and whispering frequently to Schwartz, who has managed to appear calm and professional throughout.

Lawyers praised Schwartz's efforts to proceed with an orderly defense despite Hassan's distractions, outbursts and criticism of his representation. They also said a client like Hassan would be dissatisfied with any lawyer he hired.

"This guy, I don't think, would have confidence in Abe Lincoln," Cambria said.

"I seriously doubt there's any lawyer anywhere who would satisfy Mo Hassan," Terranova added. "I say that confidently. I've represented lots of people just like him."

District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said he expects the prosecution to wrap up by early to midweek and expressed confidence in the abilities of his prosecutors, Colleen Curtin Gable and Paul Bonanno.

"I've watched how Colleen and Paul have put the evidence in, and I'm very, very proud of them," he said. "I think the citizens of this county should be proud of them. We have a lot of really good prosecutors in this office, and they're two of our finest examples of that."

Once the prosecution rests, the defense will present its case. Hassan is widely anticipated to take the stand in his own defense. How long he intends to speak and how difficult he intends to be under cross-examination could greatly affect the length of trial, observers said.

So far, Sedita said, prosecutors have received notice only that Hassan plans to pursue a "battered spouse" justification defense, essentially stating that as a long-abused husband, he feared for his life and the only way he believed he could save himself was to kill his wife.

Other seasoned defense lawyers have said that Hassan would have been better off pursuing an "extreme emotional disturbance" defense, basically arguing that, suffering under extreme psychological stress, he committed the crime in the heat of the moment and was not guilty of premeditated murder, but a lesser charge like manslaughter.

Such a defendant, however, still would be guilty of a crime, albeit a lesser one that likely would carry a lighter sentence.

Hassan, however, has said he believes he can walk out of court a free man if he can tell the jury about the "torture" and "humiliation" he says he endured at the hands of his wife.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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