Yujing Zhang surprised U.S. District Judge Roy Altman during what was to have been a routine hearing over whether to delay her trial, which is scheduled to start next week. She faces up to five years in prison on charges of unlawful entry and making false statements. She has pleaded not guilty.
According to media reports, Zhang, 33, told Altman she wants to dismiss her public defenders and represent herself.
"I don't need the attorneys, thank you," Zhang told Altman through an interpreter. Zhang speaks some English, according to court documents, but her skill level is a matter of dispute between prosecutors and her attorneys.
"Do you want to represent yourself or do you want a lawyer?" Altman replied.
"Today, I don't want the attorney," Zhang replied through the translator. She did not say why.
Altman tried to dissuade Zhang, telling her, "You understand, I've been a lawyer for a long time and I think this is a very bad decision?"
"I understand, but I hope I can have this opportunity," she replied.
Assistant federal public defender Kristy Militello told Altman that Zhang has refused to meet with her attorneys and raised concerns about Zhang's mental health. Altman said he would not allow Zhang to dismiss her attorneys until she has been examined by a psychiatrist. If deemed competent, the judge said, she could represent herself.
The public defenders had asked Altman to postpone the trial's scheduled May 28 start, saying they haven't had enough time to fully prepare her defense as many of the documents are written in Mandarin. Prosecutors were not opposed and Altman indicated he would grant the request, even before Tuesday's events.
Zhang, a Shanghai-based business consultant, is charged with lying to Secret Service agents to enter Mar-a-Lago on March 30. Agents say she had arrived in the U.S. days earlier and told them she was at Mar-a-Lago to attend a United Nations friendship event that she knew had been canceled.
Prosecutors say she was carrying four cellphones, a laptop and an external hard drive, telling agents that she feared they would be stolen if she left them in her hotel room. However, when agents searched her room at a nearby hotel, they say they discovered more electronics gear - including a device to detect hidden cameras - $8,000 in cash and numerous credit and debit cards.
Zhang's public defenders have said she came to Mar-a-Lago believing there would be a dinner that evening for the United Nations group, part of a $20,000 travel package she had purchased from a man named "Charles" she only knew through social media. They have pointed to a receipt Zhang received from Charles Lee, a Chinese national who promotes such events at Mar-a-Lago, and a flyer she had promoting it.
Lee ran the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association, which is not affiliated with the U.N., and was photographed at least twice with Cindy Yang, a Republican donor and former Florida massage parlor owner.
The president was visiting Mar-a-Lago the weekend of Zhang's arrest, but was at his nearby golf club when she arrived and she was never near him.
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