Troy quadruple-murder defendant asks to be his own lawyer

James White, left, and his attorney, Kurt Haas appear in Rensselaer County Court for a suppression hearing on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, in Troy, N.Y. White is charged with murder in the December 2017 killings of Brandi Mells, Shanta Myers, and Myers’ children, Jeremiah Myers, and Shanise Myers. (Paul Buckowski/Times […]

TROY — The Schenectady man charged with brutally stabbing two adults and two children to death in a Lansingburgh home in 2017 wants to represent himself at his quadruple-murder retrial.

James White, 40, told Rensselaer County Judge Debra Young on Friday that he “absolutely” wants to replace attorney Kurt Haas, who represented White at his first trial that ended in a mistrial, with himself.

When the judge asked White why he wanted to represent himself and three follow-up questions, he gave the same answer four consecutive times: “Because it is my right to do so.”

White didn’t blame Haas but said his request for discovery in the case has been “continually impaired” from the beginning and hurt his defense going forward. White has previously asked that two former lawyers, Assistant Public Defender Greg Cholakis, and then Steven Sharp, be replaced, before Haas was brought in.

The judge asked White a sequence of questions, including whether he understood the consequences of waiving his right to counsel. Young explained most average people lack an understanding of the intricacies of law — and that even lawyers typically hire other lawyers to represent them at trial. She noted the old saying that an attorney who defends themselves has a fool for a client.

“Do you understand that most self-represented defendants are unsuccessful?” the judge asked White.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Do you believe you are capable of representing yourself in this case?” Young asked White.

“Yes,” he replied.

The judge reminded White that if he acted as his own lawyer he would not have an attorney to lend him advice. White told the judge he accepted that fact, but also inquired if he could have a legal advisor at the trial.

The judge told White he had a right to counsel but not a right to stand-by counsel to assist him. She is expected to issue a decision on whether to grant White’s request, allow him to have a stand-by lawyer or decline it.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Matthew Hauf told the judge he did not have a position on White defending himself.

Prosecutors for Rensselaer County Mary Pat Donnelly allege that on Dec. 21, 2017, White bound and gagged the victims, put a pillow at the side of their heads and plunged a large knife through their necks in a basement apartment at 158 Second Ave.

The victims included Brandi Mells, 22: Shanta Myers, 36, and Myers’ two children, Jeremiah, 11, and Shanise Myers, 5

White is charged with four counts of first-degree murder, as well as second-degree murder charges. He faces life in prison without parole if convicted on the top count.

On the night of the killings, White and Justin Mann rode bikes to a CDTA bus stop in Schenectady and commuted to Troy.

Mann, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges, testified for prosecutors that before leaving Schenectady, White told him: “We’re going to Troy… We’re gonna murder these people.”

Mann admitted he helped White tie up the victims before White killed them. Three victims were murdered inside the home after he and White arrived, he said, adding that Jeremiah Myers was killed when he returned from playing basketball.

Mann testified White told the 5-year-old girl, just before he took her life: “This is like a needle. It’s not gonna hurt.” On Dec. 26, 2017, a landlord, responding to a concerned call from Mells’ mother, found the victims and called 911. They had been left under a pile of blood-stained clothes.

White, a Manhattan native who has a 2011 manslaughter conviction in the Bronx for the fatal stabbing of a Bronx man, testified during his trial in March that he moved to the Albany area in 2015, was homeless for a time and was living in Schenectady in December 2017. He said he and Mann became friends the previous September after they met at a library in Schenectady. White testified that he and Mann went to the Lansingburgh home to collect a $12 marijuana debt but, contradicting Mann’s testimony, said he waited outside without a jacket while Mann went inside and killed the victims.

White said he suspected Mann was robbing the victims but because of his “principles” he declined to call the police.

“I’m old school,” White testified. “My mentality is, ‘F— the police.’ … l don’t believe in calling the police to lock people up.”

On April 1, the judge declared a mistrial after the jury deliberated for more than 16 hours over four days. It was due to an ill juror and concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused all other trials in the region to halt.

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