The Conversation

Being Cross-Examined by Your Attacker is Almost Worse than the Crime

I have experienced a little bit of what Nidal Hasan's victims are about to go through, as he cross-examines them--in his capacity as his own legal representative--when they take the witness stand in his murder trial.

I've described before how a man once tried to mug me as I was walking home from work:

This happened while I was working in Cape Town, South Africa. The would-be mugger came at me from behind as I was walking home from work, grabbed me around the neck, brandished a steel pole and said: "If you don't give me your cell phone, I'll kill you." Instinctively, I drew my elbow back and struck him between the eyes.

That stunned him, and he started to walk away, making an escape that--he hoped--would not attract too much attention. I called police and followed him, letting him get a bit of distance so that we did not have another confrontation, but making sure I didn't lose sight of him. Who knows what he would have done next?

At trial, the would-be mugger decided to represent himself. I don't know why; perhaps he had talked himself out of situations like that before. At any rate, he had the opportunity to cross-examine me when I took the stand to testify against him. I was not in any danger, of course, but the experience felt almost as harrowing as the attack itself. There stands your attacker, the man who threatened your life, calling you a liar in court.

I kept my wits together and answered his insane questions--all designed to support the ridiculous and swiftly-destroyed alibi that he had been walking down the street minding his own business when I attacked him. He tripped himself up when he challenged me to remember what he had been wearing that night, and I described it accurately--a point the prosecutor seized upon in his own examination of the defendant.

It is said that a person who is his or her own lawyer has a fool for a client. From a witness's perspective, it is worse than that. The reason Hasan will have the opportunity--the reason there is a trial at all, given Hasan's admission of guilt--is that prosecutors want the death penalty, and they cannot seek it through a plea bargain. For his victims, it will feel almost as bad as the original attack. My thoughts are with them.


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