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Hassan loses bid to act as own lawyer, storms out ; Murder trial resumes without the defendant

A frustrated and angry Muzzammil Hassan stormed out of court Thursday afternoon after Judge Thomas Franczyk denied him permission to represent himself at his murder trial.

"Do as you will," Franczyk declared after warning Hassan that by leaving he was giving up his right to face his accusers and aid in his defense.

The trial continued without him.

Hassan demanded to return to the Erie County Holding Center.

"Just send me your sentence," Hassan taunted the judge.

The defendant's vehement tone in court Thursday contrasted sharply with what the prosecution later described as Hassan's calm and deliberative manner at the Hamburg Walmart on Feb. 12, 2009, when he bought two hunting knives allegedly used to kill and behead his wife, Aasiya, an hour later.

After Hassan demanded to leave the court, Franczyk sent him to a separate room with a closed-circuit television where he could view the proceedings remotely. When Hassan said he didn't want to watch the trial proceedings, Franczyk said he didn't care.

Before storming off, the defendant told the judge in open court that he had incompetent representation and deserved the right to represent himself because he was assuming all risk in the case and would be the only one to face any consequences from trial.

"It's my life, your honor," he said, "no one else's."

Hassan accused defense lawyer Jeremy Schwartz of failing to meet with him at the Holding Center as frequently as he promised, not reviewing the roughly 5,000 e-mails Hassan wanted used for his defense, making factual errors in his opening statement and changing defense strategies in the case without informing him.

Schwartz responded by agreeing that it was Hassan's life at stake.

"I don't know that I can proceed in this manner," he said. "I would ask the judge to grant his application."

Prosecutor Colleen Curtin Gable told Franczyk that Hassan was making yet another attempt to "manipulate and control" trial proceedings.

"The only person who is making this difficult is the defendant," she said.

After hearing statements from all sides in open court, as well as at length in private conference with all parties, Franczyk had clearly had enough.

He noted that Hassan has retained and fired three previous defense lawyers, "the last he described as the best he'd ever had."

He also stated that despite his repeated admonitions to Hassan to secure a lawyer before trial, Hassan didn't do so until just days before jury selection.

"If Mr. Schwartz is not prepared to your satisfaction, you have only yourself to blame," Franczyk told him. "Your application to proceed [representing yourself] and fire Mr. Schwartz is denied."

The day began with Schwartz informing the judge shortly after 10 a.m. that he and his client needed to speak in private conference with him regarding Hassan's representation.

During the initial half-hour closed conference with Hassan and all attorneys present, the defendant asked to represent himself in the case, with Schwartz serving as stand-by counsel.

The court then recessed until 11 a.m., when another 15-minute closed-door conference was convened.

Franczyk later explained that he told Hassan at that time that he was denying his request to represent himself at trial, "at which point Mr. Hassan said, 'Well then, I will fire Mr. Schwartz.' "

The judge then recessed court until 2 p.m. when he returned citing case law stating that while a defendant may "knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waive the right to counsel," such a request must be made before trial.

"Once the trial has begun, the right to self-representation is severely restricted," Franczyk said, reading from a prior court decision.

Hassan's motion to represent himself followed Wednesday's proceedings in which he had asked Franczyk for permission to personally cross-examine his oldest daughter, Sonia. Franczyk denied the request, saying Hassan had no legal right to have Schwartz represent him while also representing himself.

At a few points Wednesday, Hassan was extremely animated when whispering to his lawyer. Throughout his case so far, he has taken many notes, carried legal pads and large envelopes in and out of court, and regularly whispered to Schwartz whenever seated beside him.

Hassan said Thursday during his argument with Franczyk that his children suffered from "psychological disorders," referring to their testimony against him Wednesday.

Franczyk loudly repeated to Hassan, who was attempting to leave while surrounded by court officers, that he had the right to counsel, the right to provide assistance to counsel and the right to waive those rights.

"Is it your wish to leave then?" the judge asked over Hassan's blustering, then said, "You are free to go."

Hassan was escorted out to a separate room.

When Schwartz was asked after trial about the challenges of conducting a defense when your client is in another room, he responded, "It's not an ideal situation, but I have the info that is necessary to question the witnesses, and I'll proceed just as any other trial."

He said he did not regret taking the case and said of his client: "He would not be the first person facing these types of charges to do this. I do not think this is an effort of him to control the judicial system."

In testimony Thursday, a physician's assistant who had treated Aasiya stated that on five occasions from 2007 to 2009, she and other medical staff diagnosed her as suffering from injuries related to domestic violence.

In one instance in April 2008, Aasiya claimed to have fallen off a bike. But physician's assistant Josie Sisson said it was clear she had suffered blunt force trauma to the face because she had two "raccoon eyes" from the pooling of blood around both eyes.

Sisson said she was amazed that her face had black discoloration because Aasiya had stated the incident occurred two weeks ago.

"Two weeks after any facial injury, the injury should look green or start to yellow out," she said.

She also said Aasiya suffered from cataracts and had a distorted left pupil.

Under cross-examination, Schwartz suggested that some of Aasiya's injuries may be have been due to allergies or natural skin pigmentation. But Sisson responded that the incidents referenced by the prosecution had nothing to do with allergies or pigmentation.

Another witness, Walmart clerk Elizabeth McCort, testified about selling Hassan two Buck brand hunting knives an hour before his wife's death. Hassan had asked to test them out on something, so she gave him a cardboard box that he sawed through with a knife.

He paid with a $100 bill and was calm and pleasant during the transaction, she testified.

The prosecution then reviewed the Walmart surveillance video supporting McCort's testimony.

When asked if Hassan had made any parting comments to her, she said, "He told me to have a good day."

The trial continues Monday morning.

News Staff Reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com