Letecia Stauch’s plan to represent herself at trial in the killing of her 11-year-old stepson is fraught with pitfalls that could doom her chances with a jury, legal observers say.
Between restrictions on her access to investigative files — spanning more than 26,000 pages of reports — and the byzantine rules governing courtroom procedure, Stauch, 37, is at danger of squandering credible defenses without realizing it, the experts argued.
Even her demeanor in court could tip the scales against her.
“One false move, one splash of anger can cause a jury to say, 'Yeah, we can believe this person could do that,'” said Davide C. Migliaccio, a retired Colorado Springs attorney.
At the same time, the move is likely to turbocharge interest in what is already a nationally watched case — drawing new spectators seeking a “cringeworthy” spectacle, said Colorado Springs attorney Phil Dubois.
“They don’t want to see a crash — they want to see the flaming crash,” he said.
The two were among a half-dozen longtime attorneys who suggested that Stauch has blundered in deciding to fire her public defenders and take over her case, particularly if she has been wrongfully accused, as she asserts. Fourth Judicial District Judge Gregory Werner approved her request on Feb. 26, finding that Stauch had “knowingly” asserted her right to act as her own attorney.
Stauch is charged with first-degree murder and other counts on allegations that she killed Gannon at their Lorson Ranch home in January 2020 before dumping his body in a rural area near Highway 105 and South Perry Park Road in Douglas County.
In seeking to fire her attorneys, Stauch brushed aside the judge’s concerns that she will fail to effectively present her case. She spoke of what she called “an ace in the hole” in the form of two pieces of evidence she said would prove her innocence.
Experts called it a typical boast — and an early indication that she lacks a firm grip on the challenge before her.
“If there is such a piece of evidence, it would be known by now,” said Dubois, calling it a common claim among defendants without legal training.
“They focus on something that they persuade themselves is ‘the thing’ that will save them. And it’s not. It never is,” he added. “They build it up in their own minds through hope and desperation, but it’s never the thing that the case turns on.”
Another early misstep was Stauch’s suggestion to Werner that she might not need a key evidentiary hearing that would bring investigators to the stand in court to outline the case against her. Such hearings offer an important chance to poke at gaps in the evidence and elicit conflicting statements from witnesses, which experienced attorneys use to help shape their trial strategy. Stauch changed her stance about the hearing at a court appearance Friday, and the judge agreed to postpone it, rescheduling it for May 20.
Among unanswered questions is how Stauch intends to digest the voluminous evidence in the case. Although she told Werner she had “23 hours a day” to prepare, it's clear there will be tight limitations on her access to the material.
The judge ordered that she be given what he called the "core information" in her case — comprising up to 1,800 pages of reports — in hard copies to keep in her cell. Prosecutors will first redact certain identifying information about witnesses named in the reports, including Social Security numbers, the judge ruled. It's unclear how long the process will take.
Stauch will be required to view the rest of the more than 20,000 pages on a hard drive in the jail library, according to Tolini.
That time is limited to four hours per week for inmates, a sheriff's office spokeswoman said. (Although Stauch told the judge in court that she will only get two hours per week in the library, the sheriff's spokeswoman said she had just enrolled in a program that would soon make her eligible for four.)
A paralegal will be available to show Stauch video and photographic evidence, Tolini said.
With those restrictions, it will be hard to analyze the material, lawyers say.
“How is a pro-se defendant going to get through all that?" Migliaccio said, using the term for people serving as their own lawyers. "An attorney in murder a case might very well have a second-chair (attorney) plus a paralegal to help get it organized — who know what to look for."
Miglicaccio acknowledged there are people "smart and savvy enough" to navigate legal cases, and Cassens recounted the story of a former client who, later acting as his own attorney, successfully argued for his acquittal on a charge of assaulting a law enforcement officer. But they are rare exceptions, the attorneys argued.
Inmate lawyers often find themselves surrounded by self-appointed legal experts at the county jail, who give them bad advice, attorneys say.
Colorado Springs attorney Josh Tolini was appointed last week to be Stauch's advisory counsel — meaning he will help her navigate court procedures and advise her on how best to ask questions and pose requests to the court, but he will not address her jury or question witnesses on her behalf.
Even defendants with experienced advisers can unknowingly hamstring their own cases.
“They have a terrible tendency to make some really damaging admissions — or just do things where they end up posturing their case in a bad way,” said attorney Damon Cassens.
Meanwhile, Cassens said, prosecutors are likely to “get stuff in that might otherwise not get in — because (self-represented litigants) don’t know how to object.”
Stauch might get a little leeway from the judge in court, but jurors can expect hearing countless corrections from the bench.
“If she gets into trial and starts asking the jurors questions she shouldn’t, the judge will shut her down," Dubois said. "If she speaks out of turn, the judge will shut her down. If she starts asking witnesses improper questions during trial, he’ll shut her down.”
Representing herself at a weekslong trial, Stauch will expose herself to jurors in way seldom seen at murder trials, where defendants often decline to take the stand out of fears that "one false move," including a flash of emotion, could shape the verdict, Migliaccio said.
"They’ll have a chance to scrutinize her every move, and they will," he said. "Even if she chooses not to testify … that won’t matter if she makes one false move in front of them. That can be the ballgame. It’s a lot of risk for who knows what reward."
Several attorneys agreed that the judge would be likely to re-appoint Stauch’s legal team before her trial if she makes the request — assuming her bid to represent herself isn’t found to be a stalling tactic.
Most judges recognize that defendants without attorneys are inviting a bad outcome, and they are prone to approve trial delays rather than see someone go underequipped at trial, the experts said.
“You’re coming to a professional boxing match having just graduated from kindergarten,” Cassens said. “Yeah, it’s possible that you win — just not very likely.”