Within a 48-hour period, Marcus Coker is accused of breaking into a former girlfriend’s apartment and beating her up, stabbing and killing another ex-girlfriend, and getting into a high-speed chase and standoff with police that ended with him being shot in the head.
Coker survived the injury in September 2017 and now faces a long list of serious charges, including aggravated murder, which could land him in prison for the rest of his life.
Despite this, Coker has taken the unusual step of waiving his right to an attorney. He has standby counsel — veteran attorneys Don Hicks and Kerry O’Brien — but is currently planning to represent himself at his upcoming trial.
Coker, 36, said in a hand-written motion filed in August that he wanted to get rid of his attorneys because of their involvement in a “sham legal process” and because he didn’t agree with their decisions.
“The defendant’s grown tired of his voice being ignored by the state and counsel,” wrote Coker, who has a lengthy prior record.
As Coker’s April 3 trial in Summit County Common Pleas Court draws nearer, he appears resolute in his decision, despite how everyone else involved with the case doesn’t think this is advisable, including his stand-by counsel, prosecutors and even the judge.
“I will tell you that I hope you will consider allowing them to represent you,” Judge Kelly McLaughlin told Coker in a recent pretrial, referring to Hicks and O’Brien, who stood next to Coker. “These are incredibly serious charges. These are two of the most experienced criminal attorneys in the county, and perhaps the state. They are not afraid of anybody.”
Coker is the first defendant charged with murder in Summit County to represent himself since October 2015 when Jeffery Conrad took this step. Conrad, who was accused of the stabbing death of his girlfriend, handled the jury selection and opening statement in his murder trial. When Conrad’s effort for a plea agreement failed, however, he asked to be sent back to the jail and the trial proceeded without him in court and with no defense. He ultimately was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
J. Dean Carro, an Akron attorney and professor emeritus at the University of Akron’s law school, said pro se defendants in criminal cases in Summit County are rare and most often reserved for misdemeanors. He said defendants representing themselves have many potential pitfalls.
“It’s not a good idea,” he said. “They are both objectively and subjectively involved. Counsel can give reasonable, neutral advice.”
Carro said most defendants aren’t schooled on the law, could be in the awkward position of questioning themselves if they want to testify and may be anxious and nervous.
“That distracts you from what’s really going on,” he said.
Carro pointed to the famous quote by Abraham Lincoln: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh, whose office is prosecuting Coker, agreed with Carro that self-representation isn’t ideal.
“The rules of evidence, criminal procedure and other technical issues apply, regardless of whether a defendant has legal counsel or is representing themselves,” she said in a prepared statement. “Just as it would not be a good idea for an untrained person to perform surgery on themselves, such representation generally does not end well.”
Coker is no stranger to the legal system. His prior record includes convictions for burglary, robbery, drug charges and probation violations.
Coker lost part of his left leg in a crash during a high-speed chase with police officers about 20 years ago. He has a prosthetic leg that was in the car during his latest chase and standoff and was taken into evidence. When he appears in court, he uses crutches, a cane or a wheelchair.
Coker’s decision to represent himself in his latest cases has already presented a unique challenge. Coker has asked that he be provided all of the discovery that prosecutors gave his stand-by attorneys. This evidence, however, is in several different formats, including compact discs, flash drives and online on a content-sharing website, which can’t be accessed by an inmate in jail.
Another discovery question is who should provide Coker's requested second set of discovery. Coker’s stand-by attorneys think prosecutors should be responsible, while prosecutors argue the defense attorneys should provide it.
“I would like to see all of the evidence against me,” Coker said in a recent pretrial. “I can’t believe the state’s intentions being that they’re against me.”
“What do you have access to view?” Judge McLaughlin asked.
“I don’t have any access,” Coker replied.
Summit County Jail inmates don't have access to computers or the internet and aren't permitted to have compact discs or flash drives, said Inspector Bill Holland of the Summit County Sheriff's Office, which provides security in the jail.
The evidence includes many hours of police body camera footage from the chase and standoff from the numerous officers who were at the scene.
McLaughlin told Coker at his most recent pretrial that the court will continue to look into the discovery issue. She suggested that he think about whether he truly wants to represent himself and meet with his stand-by attorneys.
Coker declined an interview request for this article delivered to him by Hicks.
O’Brien, an attorney for 43 years who shares an office with Hicks, said the main job for him and Hicks is to provide Coker with legal advice if he needs it. He said they also must prepare for trial in case Coker decides he wants them to represent him. He said Coker can change his mind about this issue but then can’t reverse it.
O’Brien said he had a client 20 years ago in a federal gang case who was representing himself, but changed his mind before the trial.
This isn’t the first time Hicks has been the stand-by attorney in a murder case. He was appointed to serve in this role in Conrad’s murder trial. After Conrad said he planned to grab a deputy’s gun and shoot Hicks, the attorney sat closer to prosecutors than to his client for the first and only time in his 36-year legal career.
Hicks said Coker initially told him all he needed to represent himself was a Black’s Law Dictionary, a widely used legal dictionary. Hicks gave him one. Hicks thinks Coker now realizes this is more complicated than consulting a dictionary.
“He knows he’s in way over his head,” Hicks said. “There’s a stubbornness.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, email@example.com and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.