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Michael Avenatti Will Represent Himself During Remainder of His Trial Michael Avenatti Will Represent Himself During Remainder of His Trial
(32 minutes later)
Michael Avenatti, the brash lawyer who represented the pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels in a dispute with then-President Donald J. Trump, seized center stage at his criminal trial on Tuesday, suddenly announcing that he wanted to act as his own lawyer.Michael Avenatti, the brash lawyer who represented the pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels in a dispute with then-President Donald J. Trump, seized center stage at his criminal trial on Tuesday, suddenly announcing that he wanted to act as his own lawyer.
The request came just after a lunch break but before jurors had returned to a courtroom in Federal District Court in Manhattan, where testimony in Mr. Avenatti’s trial on charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft began on Monday.The request came just after a lunch break but before jurors had returned to a courtroom in Federal District Court in Manhattan, where testimony in Mr. Avenatti’s trial on charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft began on Monday.
Mr. Avenatti is accused of impersonating Ms. Daniels and persuading her literary agent to send him nearly $300,000 in publisher’s payments that had been meant for her.Mr. Avenatti is accused of impersonating Ms. Daniels and persuading her literary agent to send him nearly $300,000 in publisher’s payments that had been meant for her.
His request to represent himself, which Judge Jesse M. Furman granted, makes it likely that Mr. Avenatti will cross-examine Ms. Daniels, who is widely expected to be called as a witness during the trial.His request to represent himself, which Judge Jesse M. Furman granted, makes it likely that Mr. Avenatti will cross-examine Ms. Daniels, who is widely expected to be called as a witness during the trial.
That spectacle would cap a contentious split between the two, who had once been hailed by some as a courageous, if unlikely, pair challenging a sitting president.That spectacle would cap a contentious split between the two, who had once been hailed by some as a courageous, if unlikely, pair challenging a sitting president.
Mr. Avenatti’s unusual request came after the third witness in the trial began to testify. Judy Regnier, an office manager for Mr. Avenatti’s firm in 2018, testified that the firm had been short on money at the time. That summer, she added, a bank had stopped handing the firm’s account after a series of overdrafts, including one that had not been repaid. Mr. Avenatti’s unusual request came after the third witness in the trial began to testify. Judy Regnier, an office manager for Mr. Avenatti’s firm in 2018, testified that the firm had been short on money at the time. That summer, she added, a bank had stopped handling the firm’s account after a series of overdrafts, including one that had not been repaid.
“Payments were running late,” she said, testifying by video. “We were having trouble making ends meet.”“Payments were running late,” she said, testifying by video. “We were having trouble making ends meet.”
Ms. Regnier also testified that Mr. Avenatti had once asked her to add Ms. Daniels’s “electronic signature” to a letter and that she had done so by copying that signature from a retainer agreement. Prosecutors have said that Mr. Avenatti sent a fake letter purporting to be from Ms. Daniels to her literary agency as part of his scheme to obtain money intended for her.Ms. Regnier also testified that Mr. Avenatti had once asked her to add Ms. Daniels’s “electronic signature” to a letter and that she had done so by copying that signature from a retainer agreement. Prosecutors have said that Mr. Avenatti sent a fake letter purporting to be from Ms. Daniels to her literary agency as part of his scheme to obtain money intended for her.
Before Ms. Regnier’s cross-examination began, Mr. Avenatti told Judge Furman that he and his lawyers disagreed on how they would question her.Before Ms. Regnier’s cross-examination began, Mr. Avenatti told Judge Furman that he and his lawyers disagreed on how they would question her.
“I’m making a formal application to represent myself,” he said, adding that there had been a “breakdown” between him and his defense lawyers.“I’m making a formal application to represent myself,” he said, adding that there had been a “breakdown” between him and his defense lawyers.
Mr. Avenatti explained that he had represented himself while on trial in California, accused of stealing from clients and lying about his business and income. That proceeding ended in a mistrial when a judge ruled that prosecutors had withheld from the defense financial data that they had collected as part of their case.Mr. Avenatti explained that he had represented himself while on trial in California, accused of stealing from clients and lying about his business and income. That proceeding ended in a mistrial when a judge ruled that prosecutors had withheld from the defense financial data that they had collected as part of their case.
Judge Furman noted that Mr. Avenatti had little experience with criminal cases and cautioned him to “make your choice with your eyes wide open.” The judge also warned that granting Mr. Avenatti’s request would not give him license to “abuse the dignity of the courtroom.”Judge Furman noted that Mr. Avenatti had little experience with criminal cases and cautioned him to “make your choice with your eyes wide open.” The judge also warned that granting Mr. Avenatti’s request would not give him license to “abuse the dignity of the courtroom.”
Then, after questioning Mr. Avenatti to ensure that his judgment was not clouded, Judge Furman agreed to allow him to serve as his own lawyer.Then, after questioning Mr. Avenatti to ensure that his judgment was not clouded, Judge Furman agreed to allow him to serve as his own lawyer.
Over the next hour or so Mr. Avenatti questioned Ms. Regnier about how his firm had handled expenses, fees and money sent to clients. He also veered at times into more personal territory, asking Ms. Regnier whether she had received a generous bonus one year while working with him and whether she had taken a trip with friends at Mr. Avenatti’s “personal expense.”Over the next hour or so Mr. Avenatti questioned Ms. Regnier about how his firm had handled expenses, fees and money sent to clients. He also veered at times into more personal territory, asking Ms. Regnier whether she had received a generous bonus one year while working with him and whether she had taken a trip with friends at Mr. Avenatti’s “personal expense.”
Judge Furman said that he would appoint the lawyers who had represented Mr. Avenatti as “standby counsel” who could assist him. But Mr. Avenatti will control and organize the case going forward.Judge Furman said that he would appoint the lawyers who had represented Mr. Avenatti as “standby counsel” who could assist him. But Mr. Avenatti will control and organize the case going forward.
In 2018, Mr. Avenatti filed a lawsuit in which Ms. Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, said she had a sexual relationship with Mr. Trump more than a decade earlier. Before the 2016 election, she said, she received a $130,000 payment from the president’s former lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, to keep quiet about the relationship.In 2018, Mr. Avenatti filed a lawsuit in which Ms. Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, said she had a sexual relationship with Mr. Trump more than a decade earlier. Before the 2016 election, she said, she received a $130,000 payment from the president’s former lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, to keep quiet about the relationship.
The suit said a nondisclosure agreement that accompanied the payment was not valid.The suit said a nondisclosure agreement that accompanied the payment was not valid.
After filing the suit, Mr. Avenatti became a regular on television, often commenting on Mr. Trump. But he eventually ran afoul of the law. He was indicted and later convicted on charges that he tried to defraud Nike for millions of dollars and was charged separately in the case involving Ms. Daniels.After filing the suit, Mr. Avenatti became a regular on television, often commenting on Mr. Trump. But he eventually ran afoul of the law. He was indicted and later convicted on charges that he tried to defraud Nike for millions of dollars and was charged separately in the case involving Ms. Daniels.
Although a criminal defendant has the constitutional right to represent himself, legal experts said, that right is not absolute once a trial begins, and a judge must weigh the defendant’s interest against other interests, like the potential disruption a mid-trial switch can cause.Although a criminal defendant has the constitutional right to represent himself, legal experts said, that right is not absolute once a trial begins, and a judge must weigh the defendant’s interest against other interests, like the potential disruption a mid-trial switch can cause.
Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law, said the fact that Mr. Avenatti is a lawyer and represented himself in the California trial most likely made it easier for Judge Furman to allow him to take over his defense.Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law, said the fact that Mr. Avenatti is a lawyer and represented himself in the California trial most likely made it easier for Judge Furman to allow him to take over his defense.
“Furman can conclude that, ‘Well, I’ve got a competent defendant here. I don’t have to worry about him messing up. If he does mess up, it’ll be his own fault. And meanwhile, if I deny Avenatti’s request, I’ve created an appellate issue if he’s convicted,’” Professor Gillers said.“Furman can conclude that, ‘Well, I’ve got a competent defendant here. I don’t have to worry about him messing up. If he does mess up, it’ll be his own fault. And meanwhile, if I deny Avenatti’s request, I’ve created an appellate issue if he’s convicted,’” Professor Gillers said.
Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School, noted that Mr. Avenatti, because of his combative personality, could face real hurdles when he cross-examines Ms. Daniels.Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School, noted that Mr. Avenatti, because of his combative personality, could face real hurdles when he cross-examines Ms. Daniels.
“It’s something that I think jurors are certainly going to be paying attention to,” Professor Roiphe said, “because rather than seeing a lawyer up there talking to a witness, it’s almost like you have two adversaries in a ring.“It’s something that I think jurors are certainly going to be paying attention to,” Professor Roiphe said, “because rather than seeing a lawyer up there talking to a witness, it’s almost like you have two adversaries in a ring.
“I would certainly advise him, if I were his friend, his colleague, his lawyer, not to do this because I think it’s just too risky,” she said. “There’s just a way in which it seems to me more likely that it will end up backfiring for him than serving his interests.”“I would certainly advise him, if I were his friend, his colleague, his lawyer, not to do this because I think it’s just too risky,” she said. “There’s just a way in which it seems to me more likely that it will end up backfiring for him than serving his interests.”
Benjamin Weiser contributed reporting.Benjamin Weiser contributed reporting.