Jose D. Hernandez said he didn't see himself as having a choice.
He either could defend himself in his capital murder trial last month or let a court-appointed lawyer put forward a defense of him that he didn't agree with and didn't have much input in planning.
Hernandez, 25, chose to defend himself, a decision that seemed all the more remarkable — or foolhardy —considering he had dropped out of high school at the age of 14, earned his diploma in a Nebraska juvenile hall and never attended college.
Then there was the fact that this nonlawyer wasn't just defending his freedom, but also his life, as a guilty verdict would make him eligible for the death penalty.
Hernandez was charged with the May 2002 killing committed by his half-brother, Carlos R. Landois, 24, during a shootout with police in front of the Vons grocery store in Visalia.
Landois was killed, but Hernandez was charged with the killing of a bystander by a stray bullet and the attempted murder of a Visalia police officer, though he never fired a shot.
Hernandez had fled the scene before the shooting, but because he was an accomplice to the robbery that led to the shooting, he was, the law said, equally responsible for what happened afterward.
Some may call Hernandez's decision to defend himself in trial a bad one. After all, he lost his trial and was convicted of murder, attempted murder and other criminal counts.
On the other hand, he convinced the jury to forgo the death penalty and instead sentence him to life in prison.
"I was successful. I did a good job," Hernandez said in a telephone interview from jail a few days prior to his sentencing on Wednesday.
Twice since 2003, Hernandez fired his lawyers, representing himself for about five months the first time before asking for another lawyer. Then, in July of this year, Tulare County Superior Court Judge Darryl Ferguson again granted Hernandez's request to represent himself just weeks before his trial.
Hernandez, despite his claims of holes in the prosecution's case and unfairly being charged with his half-brother's crimes, said he expected to be found guilty and didn't believe a lawyer could have done a better job.
Part of the reason, he said, was that he didn't believe his lawyers were interested in putting on a rigorous defense. One, he said, "was going to put up a defense other than what I had wanted as a proper defense, so I couldn't be part of my own defense.
"My constitutional rights were violated. I felt deprived. I had nowhere else to go."
So, Hernandez said, he decided to represent himself, studying the law in jail to so he could put on a "proper defense."
Barry Lee Robinson, a former public defender for Tulare County who was the first lawyer Hernandez fired, said attorney-client privilege prevented him from responding to Hernandez's claims about his lawyers.
He did say that he did a good job representing Hernandez.
"I managed to get one of the murder charges dismissed," he said.
That was the charge for the death of his brother by a Visalia police officer during the shootout.
As for Hernandez's job representing himself in trial, Robinson said, "From what I read in the paper, he did a decent job."
"Not too many people are capable of doing it," Hernandez said. "It took every ounce of my faith and my confidence in myself to do what I did. I wasn't scared, but I was a little nervous."
As for why other people choose to defend themselves in court, Hernandez said a lot of inmates he has spoken to have lawyers who are indifferent to their cases or are unwilling to put much effort into them.
"I think their caseloads have a lot to do with it, or their personal opinions of people charged with the crimes. It's bias or prejudice," he said.
But some have said Hernandez's decision to represent himself had nothing to do with how he was being defended prior to his trial.
During Wednesday's sentencing hearing, Ferguson said he believed Hernandez fired his lawyers as a delaying tactic that helped drag out the case that lasted more than five years.
Donaldson's sister, Amy Schaap of Tulare, said she believes Hernandez represented himself to improve his chances of appeal.
"That man has nothing to live for except that — the appellate court," she said.
Despite Hernandez's claims of putting on a good defense for himself, on Wednesday he asked Ferguson to set aside his conviction, in part because of a claim of incompetent counsel.
Ferguson denied the motion, noting that Hernandez had argued that he was prepared to go to trial on his own.
"The defendant elected to run his own case against the advice of this court," Ferguson said.
He added that even if Hernandez had a lawyer, the outcome likely would have been the same.
Still, when asked about the old adage about a person defending himself having a fool for a client, Hernandez said, "In this case, I wasn't a fool. I was out [to] defend my life, and I did. I beat it."The reporter can be reached at email@example.com.