A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Chinese woman accused of trespassing at President Donald Trump’s private Palm Beach club while carrying a trove of electronics, including a thumb-drive initially suspected of containing malware, would be allowed to represent herself after her attorneys found no evidence of mental incompetency.
U.S. District Judge Roy Altman ruled that Yujing Zhang, 33, will be allowed to represent herself as she faces two federal charges. Altman also appointed public defenders as “stand-by lawyers” so that if she has any questions or if she changes her mind they can come back in and advise her.
A tentative next court appearance is scheduled for August 13, and the trial could begin as early as August 18.
At Tuesday’s hearing in the U.S. Southern District Court in Fort Lauderdale — the first conducted solely in English, per Zhang’s request — Zhang’s appointed public defender, Kristy Militello, called her client’s decision to represent herself “ill-advised” but rational. Militello said she has spoken with Zhang at length since the last hearing, during which Zhang maintained she wanted to serve as her own advocate.
“She’s doing so rationally and it is her own decision to do so,” Militello said to the judge.
Militello also told the court that she spoke with Zhang’s father, who said Zhang has no history of significant mental illness that the court should be aware of when considering her request.
“Is your decision to go on your own, to represent yourself, entirely voluntary?” Altman asked Zhang Tuesday. Zhang said that it was.
“There is no issue with respect to her competency. I find in fact that she is quite intelligent.” Altman said as he ruled to allow Zhang to represent herself. “I think she is making a very bad decision, but I think the decision is her own.”
In court on Tuesday, Zhang started by asking to know the names of everyone in the courtroom for “security purposes.” Altman identified himself, the interpreter and the court reporter. Members of the public seated in the gallery were not identified.
Zhang was arrested on March 30, allegedly trying to unlawfully enter Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s South Florida club and residence. On April 12, Zhang was indicted by a grand jury on two federal charges: lying to a federal agent and entering restricted property. Zhang faces up to a year on the trespassing charge and up to five years for lying to a federal agent.
Zhang has so far refused to accept copies of evidence provided by the U.S. Attorneys Office, according to U.S. Attorney Rolando Garcia. During the scheduling hearing, Zhang’s former defense attorneys told Zhang they believe that some of that evidence could be “exculpatory,” and had it translated into Chinese for Zhang prior to their dismissal. Prompted by the judge, Zhang acknowledged that her attorneys were “very hard working.” She also suggested that she did not want to review any evidence, a decision Altman advised against.
Last month, Zhang surprised the court during a pretrial hearing when she told Altman she wanted to dismiss her court-appointed public defenders and represent herself during the unusual one-hour back-and-forth.
At the time of her original request, Altman called Zhang’s desire to dismiss her attorneys a “very bad decision,” and grilled Zhang on legal books she had read and whether she would have time to learn the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
On Tuesday, Zhang reiterated her desire to represent herself and waive her right to an attorney.
“I can do it by myself,” Zhang said. “I insist on my opinion. I want to do it by myself.”
According to Militello, Zhang’s decision does not seem to be rooted in any dissatisfaction with the defense attorneys provided to her because Zhang also met with a private defense attorney and Zhang also declined that attorney’s offer to represent her.
“Do you understand the charges in counts one and two carry significant criminal penalties?” Altman asked. Zhang responded that she did.
Altman again walked through concerns regarding whether Zhang would have enough time to prepare and understand American law, asking Zhang if she understands the consequences of her decision to represent herself. He read the indictment and then explained the criminal procedure to Zhang at length — including specifics of the jury selection process, the calling of witnesses, and jury instructions, checking to make sure she understood the procedure after each point.
Altman had originally postponed his decision until after Zhang saw a doctor after Zhang’s defense attorneys suggested in a hearing in May that there may be mental health red flags in Zhang’s recent past. At the time, Altman said he would allow her to represent herself if she was deemed competent.
“I don’t want to see a doctor,” Zhang insisted to Altman.
Zhang later refused to see the doctor her attorneys arranged for her. Despite this, her lawyers filed a motion last week stating that Zhang “does not suffer from a mental disease or defect” and paving the way for her to represent herself.
This is the latest in a bizarre drama unfolding in the South Florida federal court, after Zhang was stopped from entering the president’s private estate in March. Zhang made it through the first layer of security claiming that she wanted to use the pool, but was later caught after she provided a different story to a receptionist. Zhang’s case has raised questions about lax security at Mar-a-Lago and the risks that may pose to the president’s safety and national security.
Zhang was arrested after she told a receptionist she was there to attend an event that didn’t exist. It was later determined that Zhang had bought a ticket to a private fundraiser event that had been planned for the evening of the 30th, and promoted on Chinese social media by massage parlor entrepreneur Cindy Yang as a chance to mingle with members of the president’s family. The event ticket was sold to Zhang by Yang’s associate Charles Lee, according to Zhang’s defense attorneys. Yang has previously denied knowing Zhang.
The March 30 event was canceled after the Miami Herald’s original reporting uncovering Yang’s political connections and business selling access to the president and his family through events at Mar-a-Lago.
Among the electronic devices Zhang had on her was a thumb-drive that Secret Service agents initially said contained malware. In early hearings, prosecutors said the case could involve espionage. Zhang has not subsequently been charged with espionage and prosecutors later walked back the validity of the malware test, saying it could have been a false positive.