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The so-called underwear bomber is preparing to defend himself in a trial that could send him to prison for the rest of his life. He's the latest high profile defendant to serve as his own lawyer. The Supreme Court says that right is preserved in the U.S. Constitution. But the strategy can prove disruptive to the court and also devastating for a defendant. NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON: When prospective jurors file into a Detroit courthouse next week for the start of a major terrorism trial, all eyes will be on the defendant, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He may be best known for allegedly trying to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on an airplane on Christmas Day 2009.

Lately, his decision to fire his lawyers and defend himself is putting him back in the spotlight all over again. This week the judge warned Abdulmutallab that he could be in over his head, but the defendant said he wanted to go it alone. Jonathan Shapiro is a defense lawyer in Virginia. He says in 1975 the U.S. Supreme Court established a firm principle.

JONATHAN SHAPIRO: Defendants had the absolute right under the Constitution to represent themselves, if they wanted to.

JOHNSON: That doesn't mean the process is easy, as the underwear bomber case shows. Abdulmutallab told the judge he wants to give the opening statement and closing argument himself. But his behavior before the trial has raised questions about how that will work.

For example, last month at a court proceeding, Abdulmutallab hollered Osama's alive and refused to stand up for the judge. The judge says he understands the proceedings and knowingly waived his right to a lawyer - all that matters when evaluating whether a defendant can represent himself in court.

Just in case, the judge has followed standard procedure and asked a lawyer to stand by during the trial, to help by making arguments or answering legal questions. That lawyer didn't return NPR's calls, so we found another attorney who's been in that spot before.

ED MCMAHON: It's like having a front row seat to a train wreck every time.

JOHNSON: Ed McMahon has been a defense lawyer in Virginia for more than 20 years.

MCMAHON: They're not trained in how to examine witnesses or put on cases, so inevitably it's just going to blow up.

JOHNSON: That's what happened five years ago, when McMahon acted as standby lawyer to accused al-Qaida member Zacarias Moussaoui. After Moussaoui burst out with profanity and lashed out at the judge in court papers, the judge asked McMahon to take over the case. But the trouble kept coming, McMahon says.

MCMAHON: Soon as a new jury pool would walk in, he would stand up and say these are not my lawyers. God bless Osama bin Laden. I'm going to kill all of you. Things like that.

JOHNSON: And that's not the worst of it. Jon Shapiro says he spent months getting ready to defend accused D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Muhammad informed the court on the day of opening statements that he was going to represent himself.

JOHNSON: And the judge, citing the Supreme Court precedent, let him do it. Problem was, Shapiro says...

SHAPIRO: The Commonwealth's very first witness was an expert who, as it turned out, provided the linchpin for their entire theory.

JOHNSON: And Muhammad didn't have the legal or technical skills to do a proper cross examination. Shapiro took hold of the steering wheel again after a couple of days, but he says the damage was done. Muhammad was found guilty and was put to death.

Longtime defense lawyer Barry Boss says there's a common issue in many of these cases.

BARRY BOSS: The people who are most often in the situation of insisting on representing themselves are people who suffer from some sort of serious mental illness. So they're the people really who are least able to defend themselves and to protect themselves.

JOHNSON: Often, Boss says, that illness involves grandiosity, meaning the person thinks he's more important and more qualified than he is. And he says there's usually another complication.

BOSS: The case is going to take a lot longer, because everybody will bend over backwards to make sure that the defendant's getting a fair trial, knowing that the defendant himself really isn't capable of giving him one.

JOHNSON: In some cases, like Abdulmutallab's, judges issue guidelines for how things will work weeks ahead of the trial, describing where the standby lawyer can sit in the courtroom, what kind of help the lawyer can offer, and instructing the defendant to let the judge know a day ahead of time which witnesses he will question. But when it comes to defendants who want to represent themselves, lawyers say, even the best laid plans often fall by the wayside.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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