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California judge irked by accused killer acting as own lawyer

Joseph Naso is pictured in this undated file booking photograph released to Reuters on April 14, 2011 by the Washoe County Sheriff's office.
Joseph Naso is pictured in this undated file booking photograph released to Reuters on April 14, 2011 by the Washoe County Sheriff's office.

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN RAFAEL, California (Reuters) - An accused California serial killer representing himself at his own murder trial drew a series of rebukes from the judge on the first day of testimony and was warned to obey procedural rules in court or risk losing the right to serve as his own attorney.

Joseph Naso, 79, charged with first-degree murder in the slayings of four prostitutes dating back to the 1970s, was upbraided on Tuesday for interrupting a prosecution witness during cross-examination and several other transgressions of trial decorum.

"I'm going to admonish you now and ask you to stop interrupting the witness," Marin County Superior Court Judge Andrew Sweet said with the jury absent during one of numerous breaks in proceedings he called to scold Naso. "Act like an attorney in my courtroom."

Later in the day, following a disparaging remark from Naso after he was overruled by the judge, Sweet told him, "I'm not going to allow you to turn these proceedings into a circus."

Sweet also rebuked Naso for raising issues in his opening statement the day before that the judge had ruled inadmissible.

"If you violate my court orders on evidence, these are things that violate a defendant's right to self-representation. I suppose this is a warning to you," Sweet said.

Naso could face the death penalty if convicted of killing more than one of four women whose slayings were dubbed the "alphabet murders," so named because the first and last name of each victim starts with the same letter in the alphabet.

Two victims, Roxene Roggasch, 18, and Carmen Colon, 22, were killed in the 1970s. Two others, Pamela Parson, 38, and Tracy Tafoya, 31, were slain in the 1990s.

Naso insisted in his statement to the jury on Monday that he is innocent of killing anyone.

RARE MURDER TRIAL DEFENSE

Although he has no legal training, the defendant has insisted upon representing himself since the inception of the murder case. For now, he has been permitted to do so, accompanied in proceedings by a court-appointed advisory counsel who is barred from playing an active role in the trial.

The judge has said the advisory counsel should be prepared to step in and replace Naso as the lead defense attorney.

Naso is not physically restrained during the trial but his movements in the courtroom are restricted by court order. He is required to remain behind the defense table and is not permitted to approach witnesses. To avoid the restrictions influencing the jury, the judge placed the same limitations on prosecutors.

Legal experts say it is rare for defendants in capital murder trials to represent themselves, especially those accused as serial killers, though it is not unheard of.

Ted Bundy, who ultimately confessed to committing 30 murders in seven states during the 1970s before he was executed in Florida, had insisted on defending himself while on trial.

The first witness to take the stand in Naso's trial, Nevada probation officer Roger Jacobs, testified that the defendant was on probation for felony theft when authorities visiting Naso's home in April 2010 found ammunition there, leading to a further search of the house. Jacobs said the front door of the house was nailed shut with a sign saying, "Keep Out."

Prosecutors say the search ultimately turned up what they have described as a diary of sexual assaults and a list of victim dumping grounds, along with hundreds of photographs of naked women, many of whom appeared to be dead or unconscious.

Naso has admitted a penchant for taking pictures of women in nylons and high heels - he showed off dozens of such photos to the jury on Monday - but he denied that he kept photos of deceased persons in his home.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)

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