When we last told you about James Calvert, his trial in Tyler, Texas was just beginning. Accused of murdering his ex-wife Jelena Sriraman and kidnapping their four-year-old son Lucas, Calvert had refused to take attorneys and was instead representing himself in court, despite no real legal training.
Last week, a jury sentenced him to death by lethal injection—but only after a trial that included a shock belts, screams, and the defendant being dragged through court. Some legal experts believe that the courtroom antics suggest grounds for a successful appeal.
Thousands of defendants around the country choose to defend themselves in court—but only a rare few do so during capital murder trials. Calvert's trial is perhaps a case study of what can go wrong for those who do.
The 44-year-old defendant had already unnerved Judge Jack Skeen, Jr., in the months leading up to the trial, when he acted out during preliminary hearings. Once, he had to be dragged into the courtroom. He also apparently waived his Fifth Amendment rights before the trial even began.
Once the trial began, he led long, rambling questionings of witnesses, filed many, many motions, and objected constantly to the prosecution's testimony.
The trial took a turn for the dramatic on Sept. 15, when Calvert refused to stand up while talking to Judge Skeen. Fed up, the sheriff's department activated Calvert's shock belt—essentially a wearable taser placed on most defendants—sending 50,000 volts of electricity coursing through his body. He writhed in pain and screamed loudly for several seconds. Common trial procedure says that a shock belt should only be used when a defendant poses an immediate security threat.
It's not clear whether the jury heard his screams—they were out of the courtroom at the time—although they later heard testimony that he had been shocked. The judge then revoked Calvert's right to self-representation, something he had threatened to do for weeks.
Two new attorneys who had the unenviable task of taking up his defense in the middle of the trial moved for a mistrial, but Skeen denied the motion. The prosecution continued making its case, while the attorneys tried to work with what they had. The closing arguments sound like something out of a Law & Order episode. Here's the description from KLTV:
First Assistant District Attorney April Sikes closed for the state in a very emotional, passionate argument for the jury. "I have waited a very, very, very long time to stand here and speak on behalf of Jelena Sriraman and Lucas Calvert," Sikes said. "He tried to silence her," Sikes said as she showed the jury a picture of Jelena and her two children. "That's why we're here!!" Recovering from throat surgery, Sikes made her argument with the help of a microphone… "I'll tell you this—voice or no voice—I got a lot of fight left in me," she said… She got very emotional at times, even being handed a tissue by the court bailiff to wipe away tears.
The jury quickly convicted Calvert of murder. The sentencing phase of the trial focused on how bad an inmate he was, with witnesses from the county jail staff noting that he had been an "uncooperative" inmate who talked back and didn't follow orders.
Jason Cassel, one of Calvert's defense attorneys, told me that he had tried to argue that a life sentence made sense because Calvert was only a danger to his ex-wife—and would be unlikely to encounter any more ex-wives while serving a life sentence. But the jury didn't buy it. “Because he represented himself for so long, they got to experience his personality and how he is, and there weren’t any signs of remorse,” Cassel said. “It just kind of changed how the jury looked at him.”
Calvert's case was automatically appealed to Texas' highest court after he was sentenced to death. Some experts believe the trial antics—and particularly the use of the shock belt—could lead the case to be overturned. (Calvert will be represented by new attorneys; there's no right to self-representation on appeal.)
Neither Judge Skeen nor prosecutor Matt Bingham's office responded to a request for comment.“The court bended over backwards in this instance to give him the right to represent himself,” Cassel said. “I think a lot of other judges wouldn’t have been as patient in these proceedings.”
It's rare for defendants facing a murder charge to represent themselves in court. But Calvert isn't the only one—one Ohio defendant said he would do so earlier this month.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.