Hopkins’ chaotic sexual assault trial drags on — and there’s not much the court can do about it

Stephen Hopkins continues to represent himself in his sexual assault trial, and despite the delays and upheaval, there’s not much the court can do about it. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

As a protracted sexual assault trial in St. John’s enters its second month, the accused continues to delay proceedings and lecture the judiciary, raising questions about whether the court can step in and force the accused to find a lawyer.

Stephen Hopkins allegedly broke into a Cowan Heights home in September 2020. The 17-year-old complainant, who cannot be identified due to her age, testified that Hopkins asked her for a glass of water, and when she opened the door to hand her, he forced his way inside, carried her upstairs and allegedly sexually assaulted her.

Hopkins is representing himself in the Supreme Court and, since his trial began on May 2, has spent considerable time with witnesses. Hopkins kept a witness, an RNC sergeant, on the stand for nearly two days during cross-examination.

Much of this was spent arguing with Judge Donald Burrage about what questions he was allowed to ask, or in elaborate preambles that often didn’t lead to a question at all.

The strategy prompted Burrage to repeatedly berate Hopkins.

Last week, as he prepared for his defense, Hopkins compiled a list of his planned witnesses, many of whom were RNC officers.

“There will be a relevance test,” Burrage told him. “I’m not going to stay here while you subpoena half the town.”

“Do my rights carry weight in your mind?” asked Hopkins.

“You have no right to flout the process,” Burrage replied.

“I have been lax in applying [the rules].… You certainly have the right to represent yourself, which you have chosen. Beyond that, you have no right to rant about the Criminal Code. »

Hopkins’ decision unusual, law professor says

Burrage was right when he said Hopkins had every right to refuse a lawyer and take on the lawsuit himself, says Jennifer Leitch, a law professor and executive director of the National Self-Represented Litigants Project, an organization that advocates for better resources for people who defend themselves in court.

“We don’t see a lot of people choosing to represent themselves,” Leitch said, adding that most unrepresented defendants are those who can’t afford an attorney or don’t have access to legal aid.

“Although there is a group that says, ‘I want to take control of my own case’…and that’s fine. It’s their choice.”

Jennifer Leitch runs an organization to study and help unrepresented litigants in the court system. (Radio Canada)

But that decision has its drawbacks, for both the court and the defendant, she said.

“We have an adversarial system designed by lawyers, in which lawyers can participate,” Leitch said.

“What we have now is a real disparity.…One party has gone to law school, most likely gained experience in trials and hearings, has knowledge of substantive procedural law and is prepared to continue.

“And the other side, the unrepresented or self-represented side, often runs to catch up.”

That became clear last week, when Hopkins called several police officers to the stand, alongside a former roommate, who seemed less than charmed by the defendant.

“I never had a relationship with you,” testified the former roommate.

“I always told you never to talk to the girls who came to see me. I didn’t like it when you did. I complained about you to the landlord several times. I said that.”

“Did you complain about me?” Hopkins asked in disbelief.

“I did. Many times,” replied the witness.

Burrage repeatedly stopped Hopkins to warn him of this line of questioning.

“If a jury were sitting there to hear this gentleman … describe you as a ‘rapist,’ that would be very damaging to a jury,” the judge said.

“What you extract from this witness is of no use to your cause at all.”

Right to “fundamental” self-representation

Despite the upheaval, Leitch said, Hopkins can continue to represent himself. A court can only intervene to appoint a lawyer if the defendant is considered legally incapable.

“It’s pretty fundamental to think about participation and to think about the right to speak with your own voice, especially when your life is at stake,” Leitch said.

“If someone was found to be incompetent from a legal point of view, then you would think about appointing a lawyer. But apart from that, we allow people to represent themselves.”

Hopkins sits at a table of lawyers, his legs in shackles, during his trial in late May. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

In civil and family courts, most litigants do not have attorneys, Leitch says. The proportion is not much lower for relatively minor criminal charges; for example, about 30 percent of impaired driving defendants are unrepresented, she says.

Defendants without a lawyer, she adds, are statistically more likely to lose their cases.

“It’s a really daunting process for most people. … The rules of evidence, the rules of procedure, who speaks when,” she said.

“We need to think about how we might reconfigure some of these court processes so that they work better for the vast majority of unrepresented people who actually appear in them.”

Hopkins’ trial continues Monday.

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