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After representing himself, Duluth man complains of bad counsel

Steven Lynn Oppel

Steven Oppel argued to the court Tuesday that, contrary to what a jury found, he is not guilty of sexually assaulting a preteen girl and he should get a new trial because he was defended by a man who was ineffective, incompetent and had no idea what he was doing.

Oppel was talking about himself.

The 47-year-old Duluth man chose to represent himself at trial rather than hire an attorney or inquire as to whether he qualified for a public defender. During an interview outside the courtroom during his four-day December trial, he said he chose to represent himself because he couldn't afford a private attorney and he didn't trust the work of public defenders, whom he labeled with a derogatory term.

The jury deliberated only 3½ hours and found Oppel guilty of first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct. He was sentenced Tuesday in St. Louis County District Court to 12½ years in prison and is subject to lifetime conditional release prohibitions. He must also register as a predatory offender and provide a DNA sample. Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Nathaniel Stumme prosecuted the case.

Anne Fisk of the St. Louis County Attorney's Victim-Witness office read to the court an impact statement written by the victim. The girl said Oppel raped her. She said the assault made her feel different from everybody. She has bad dreams and doesn't trust boys or men. She said she was happy he was going to prison and she hoped he got put away for many years.

In seeking a new trial, Oppel suggested that the court was to blame for his conviction by letting him represent himself at trial. Before being sentenced, Oppel said he was "100 percent not guilty of these charges." He said he was limited to one hour of sleep a night during his trial and he was unprepared, incompetent and ineffective in trying to represent himself.

Judge John DeSanto reminded Oppel that at several pretrial hearings he had repeatedly advised Oppel that he should have legal counsel. Before the trial started, DeSanto read Oppel his constitutional rights, made sure that he understood the charges and potential consequences and the expectations of the court if he represented himself. DeSanto also appointed Duluth defense attorney Keith Shaw as advisory counsel to Oppel. Shaw answered Oppel's legal questions during the trial but didn't argue the case to the jury.

A 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Faretta v. California, held that defendants in state criminal trials have the constitutional right to refuse appointed counsel and represent themselves when they intelligently elect to do so.

Northeastern Minnesota Chief Public Defender Fred Friedman represented Oppel at Tuesday's hearing and provided information to him on how to appeal the case.

When Friedman was asked before Oppel's trial his opinion of the defendant representing himself, he said: "It's always a mistake. The old saying is that a man who represents himself has a fool as a client."