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Wednesday, Jul 09 2014 06:14 PM

'Austin Powers' henchman to act as own attorney in potential death penalty case

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Actor Joseph Son bows his head as he is arraigned in Kern County Superior Court in this Sept. 26, 2013 photo. He is charged with assault by a life prisoner with force causing death.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

He never played a lawyer on screen, but a former actor best known for his henchman role in the first "Austin Powers" film has decided to represent himself in a potential death penalty case.

Joseph Son, charged in connection with the killing of his cellmate at Wasco State Prison, refused to accept representation from the Kern County Public Defender's office Wednesday. He insisted there was a conflict of interest.

The 43-year-old Son repeatedly asked Judge Michael G. Bush to appoint him an attorney from the county's Indigent Defense Program, which takes on clients that the Public Defender's office cannot represent.

Bush refused. The judge read a letter Son wrote for the court, and afterward said there was no indication the Public Defender's office had a conflict in representing him.

The contents of the letter weren't made public.

Deputy Public Defender T. Alan Rogers, who had previously represented Son for several months, attended the hearing, as did Public Defender Konrad Moore.

Moore said he had planned to assign Rogers and Janice Kim, both veteran attorneys of his office, to Son's case if he had changed his mind.

Rogers said he respects Son's right to represent himself, but noted anyone not well versed in the law may have difficulties making his case.

In short, experience matters.

"It's obvious you wouldn't want to go into a gunfight with a knife," he said by way of comparison.

Deputy District Attorney David Wolf said afterward the judge made the right decision. He said Son has a constitutional right to represent himself, and Bush followed the law in allowing him to do so.

But, like Rogers, he questioned Son's decision.

"It's like that old joke says, 'If you represent yourself you have a fool for a client,'" Wolf said.

There are already signs Son is encountering problems. He remains in custody at a Stockton facility and said he relies on others to retrieve the volumes he needs from the law library, and he doesn't have access to certain websites attorneys do.

Son's preliminary hearing -- during which a judge decides whether there's enough evidence for a defendant to be tried on the charges against him or her -- was postponed Wednesday to Aug. 20 to allow Son more time to prepare.

The death penalty has not been waived in Son's case. Wolf said District Attorney Lisa Green will decide whether to seek death after the preliminary hearing.

Son is charged with "assault by a life prisoner with force causing death." It's similar to a murder charge, but more specific to Son's circumstances since he was already serving life without the possibility of parole when his cellmate was killed.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports say Son and Michael Graham were housed together at Wasco State Prison when Graham was found dead the evening of Oct. 10, 2011. Graham had been serving a two-year term for failing to register as a sex offender.

He died from multiple blunt force trauma, according to the reports.

Son is serving a life sentence stemming from a 2011 torture conviction where DNA evidence linked him to a 1990 gang rape in Orange County.

He's notable for his short stature -- he stands 5 feet 4 inches tall -- but stocky build. A former mixed martial arts fighter, he competed as a heavyweight at 236 pounds.

In addition to playing "Random Task" in the 1997 hit "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," Son appeared in several action films.

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