A Stamford judge granted a highly unusual request allowing former White House counsel J. Michael Farren to be absent during his criminal trial for the attempted murder of his wife four-and-a-half years ago.
During an hour-long hearing Wednesday where Farren was nearly thrown in jail by Judge Richard Comerford for making some coy answers to the judge's pointed questions about whether he understood what he was doing by giving up his Constitutional right to attend his own trial, Farren finally explained that attending trial could cause significant psychological problems for the hard-charging lawyer who served two Bush presidents.
Moments after Comerford granted his permission for Farren to be tried in absentia, Stamford State's Attorney David Cohen, who will be trying the case with Senior Assistant State's attorney Richard Colangelo, said that in his 36 years in the courthouse it was the first time he had ever seen a judge grant such a request. Cohen, who is this judicial districts most senior law enforcement officer, explained that he had seen numerous people tried in absentia who skipped bond before trial, but he had never seen a defendant not on the run give up his right to be present during testimony.
Farren, who was already granted permission to be absent during the choosing of jurors two weeks ago, is facing a maximum 70-year prison sentence if the jury finds him guilty of attempted murder, risk of injury to a child and two counts of first-degree assault.
Farren was arrested in his multimillion New Canaan mansion on the night of Jan. 6, 2010, after his wife turned up at a neighbor's home bloodied and badly beaten. Mary Margaret Farren later said her husband strangled her, throttled her head against a hard-wood floor and beat her with a metal flashlight in the master bedroom of their Wahackme Road home in New Canaan. She said she managed to escape the house with her two young daughters. She had served Farren with divorce papers two days earlier.
After a week-long civil trial in December, a Stamford jury awarded Mary Margaret Farren $28.6 million in damages after they heard her hours-long testimony and saw gruesome video footage of her blood soaked head and torso while being treated in the Norwalk Hospital Emergency Room.
Up until mid-June, Farren had been acting as his own defense attorney for 14 months. But he told Comerford a few weeks ago that the psychological toll the evidence in the case was taking on him was too much and asked that he be given an attorney.
Over Farren's objections, Comerford quickly reappointed defense attorneys Eugene Riccio and Timothy Moynahan to represent him. Farren had hired the two to represent him after his arrest. But Farren said he wanted other attorneys. Three weeks before trial was set to begin, Comerford said Riccio and Moynahan were two of the best attorneys in the state and knew the case inside and out and were fully capable of representing him.
Just minutes into Wednesday's hearing to sort out the matter of Farren's request to be tried in absentia, Farren raised the ire of the experienced trial judge.
After asking Farren if he was on any drugs that would cloud his judgment in the matter, Farren said he was on a regime of psychiatric related drugs.
Probing further and asking if he understood what he was doing, Farren told the judge that for legal reasons he did not want to answer the judge's questions.
Picking up some papers up off the desk in front of him, Farren told Comerford that he had filed an appeal with the state appellate court challenging the judge's decision to appoint Riccio and Moynahan to defend him.
"Forget your appeal ... You heard what I said. Put your paper down," the judge said with voice raised.
"Your honor, because of a stay in the proceedings, I don't think that I have an obligation to respond to the court at this time," Farren said.
Clearly agitated at Farren's response Comerford said, "Does the state wish to be heard on bond?"
Comerford then said he wanted to take a break and before marching out of the courtroom, he turned to Farren and said, "You aren't going to leave the courtroom. We will have a hearing on bond in five minutes."
A few months after his arrest, Farren was freed on a $750,000 court appearance bond, but with severe restrictions on his ability to leave his sister's home, where he is staying.
About 40 minutes later, during which time Farren calmly spoke to a ABC reporter sitting in the courtroom about an interview he did for a Sunday business news show when he was in the U.S. Commerce Department sometime in the 1990s, Comerford returned to the bench and said he wanted to begin again.
Comerford explained to Farren that Connecticut does not have "hybrid" representation, and does not allow a defendant to file motions while being represented by an attorney and because of that there was no stay for his latest appeal.
"I want to make sure it is understood that you know what you are doing here today. Do you understand what I am saying to you this morning?" Comerford said. Farren answered that yes, he comprehended what Comerford was saying.
"I was a little short with you before, and I did not mean to be," Comerford said a few moments later.
Comerford then quizzed Farren on each aspect of his request going through the different parts of a trial that include the reading of charges, the prosecution's presentation of evidence, the defense and closing arguments. Farren again said he did not want to be present for any part of the trial.
When asked about his feelings on the matter, Riccio said that he objected to Farren's request, explain that he did not think it in his client's best interest.
But Farren said his absence may lessen media interest in the case and seeing people including his wife testify against him will be difficult to bear.
"My objective is to get to the end of every day and want to be alive," said Farren, adding that he did not want to be involuntarily committed to a mental institution caused by the stress of trial.
Farren also said that he was listening to what Riccio and Moynahan had to say to him but he was not responding to them, in protest of their appointment to defend him.
Farren said he was standing on his Constitutional rights as a defendant.
"You exercise those rights at your own peril, Mr. Farren," Comerford said.
Comerford granted Farren's request but said he reserved the right in the interests of justice to have Farren present at trial, which begins Monday, at some point.