SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge Tuesday told accused con man Luke Brugnara repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, that it's not a good idea to represent himself in a mail fraud case involving more than $11 million worth of fine art.
"I just need to send out a handful of subpoenas and I'm ready to go," Brugnara told U.S. District Judge William Alsup in a hearing. "I know this case better than anybody. I'll be vindicated in a few weeks."
If convicted of all charges, Brugnara could face up to 115 years in prison for ordering millions in artwork from a New York dealer and refusing to pay.
A grand jury added escape and contempt charges to his indictment after he absconded from the San Francisco Federal Building in February during a furlough to meet with his lawyer.
Alsup admonished Brugnara several times that he would be "severely hampered" if he tried to defend himself.
The judge suspected that Brugnara was waiving his right to an attorney to get an earlier trial date.
"If you did this to get an earlier trial date, then good, God bless you, but it's no guarantee. There's no way I can foresee anything," Alsup said.
He set a tentative trial date of April 27, noting that if Brugnara had chosen to be represented by counsel, "no competent lawyer could be able to try this case on April 27th."
Brugnara argued with Alsup for nearly an hour on that point, saying conditions at the Glenn Dyer Jail in Alameda are tantamount to torture.
"I've lost 100 pounds, I'm dying," he said. "Here I am with murderers and bank robbers. It's surreal. Seven fights broke out in my pod in the first 24 hours."
"This case would have been over if you hadn't absconded," Alsup shot back. "The verdict would be in."
He added: "As far as I'm concerned, you're going to be in jail until the trial is over. It would take a miracle to convince me otherwise."
Alsup urged Brugnara to accept counsel from George Boisseau, a respected trial lawyer. "You would be foolish to turn down the services of such an excellent lawyer," the judge said. "The court has gone to a lot of trouble to ask Mr. Boisseau to step in."
"I like him, personally," Brugnara said. "Bur I'm prepared to unequivocally waive the right of appointed counsel and proceed pro se."
Brugnara angled to be let out of jail to prepare for trial, or to borrow money to hire private counsel. He said he was all set to hire private counsel while he was on the lam, but was apprehended "on purpose," to prevent him from doing so.
Alsup said: "If you can get a lawyer to represent you, this is still America, but the fact that you are in jail is your fault."
Alsup set another hearing for Thursday, at which he plans to question a jail representative on whether its facilities are adequate for Brugnara to plan his defense.
But Alsup has no plans to allow Brugnara back on the streets. "You've got an uphill battle with me," the judge said. "You'll be stuck in jail preparing for trial."