Alex Wilson said her acquittal last spring brought a big sense of relief.
But also a mark of success.
"It was the second time that I've defended myself successfully," she said.
Acquitted on two misdemeanors related to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Wilson is a rare example of a pro se defendant, or one who is self-represented.
She maintains a website to educate others about self-representation, drawing from her experiences and research, starting from online self-help and visits to her local law library, the Bismarck Tribune reported .
"I think it's really important to empower individual citizens and to show citizens that we have the power to defend ourselves successfully and win," Wilson said.
South Central District Presiding Judge Gail Hagerty said judges don't see a lot of self-represented defendants in criminal cases. People have a right to an appointed attorney in most criminal cases, but many people in family law cases represent themselves due to attorney costs, she said.
"I think we generally try to advise folks who want to represent themselves of the risks of doing so," Hagerty said. "They have to follow the same rules as an attorney would; the other side will be represented by an attorney in a criminal case; the judge will not assist or advise them."
Burleigh County Senior Assistant State's Attorney Julie Lawyer said she's seen trials with pro se defendants accused of misdemeanors, such as driving under suspension or driving under the influence.
At his trial last fall in Bismarck for attempted murder and terrorizing charges, Branden Lyon made his own closing argument. The jury convicted him on all counts.
Lawyer said serious cases, such as attempted murder, usually don't see self-representation.
"Sometimes if a defendant is adamant that he wants to represent himself and it is a very serious charge, the judge will appoint an attorney anyway and have that attorney available at trial in case the defendant changes his or her mind," said Burleigh County Assistant State's Attorney Marina Spahr.
Lyon isn't the only high-level defendant to represent himself at some point in a case. Richard Dunne, also charged with attempted murder and terrorizing, has been representing himself since his attorney withdrew in August. He's set for trial in March in Watford City for allegedly stabbing a man in front of police.
"(Dunne) no longer wants counsel to represent him in this matter," Dunne's former attorney, Derek Thooft, wrote in his motion to withdraw.
Dunne declined an interview from the McKenzie County Correctional Facility to discuss his defense.
Representation comes down to the defendant, according to Spahr.
"There are some individuals who are convinced that they know better than anyone else and they choose to represent themselves," she said. "I always think that is a mistake, but it is their choice."
Lawyer pointed to an unusual example of a trial in 2014 in which defendant Steven Evans fired his appointed attorney, Kent Morrow, and went on to question three witnesses with Morrow on standby.
Morrow corroborated Lawyer's recollection and said that was the first time he's been fired at trial, but added he made Evans' final summation argument as the defendant became "unnerved."
Morrow also said pro se defendants should know what they're getting themselves into, also paraphrasing a proverb: "When you represent yourself, you have a fool for a client."
"They're still held to that standard of knowing what to do and how to represent themselves," he said.
Evans, who was convicted for assault-related crimes, has sued and appealed over post-conviction relief, ineffective counsel and consecutive sentences — still self-represented while submitting handwritten briefs to the North Dakota Supreme Court.
In the DAPL protest cases, a few defendants have indicated they will represent themselves, according to defense attorney Sam Saylor, who added he doesn't know if they'll follow through.
"We have not seen much of it," said Sarah Hogarth, spokeswoman of the Water Protector Legal Collective. "We're aware of a couple who have chosen to do that."
For Wilson, who lives in Fort Yates and will soon return to California, she said education is an important aspect of legal representation.
"It's not something that has to be scary; it's something that I'd like to see more education in the public sector," Wilson said.
Wilson said she did have an attorney to consult alongside her in court last year for procedure cues, but went about her case gathering as much information as possible.
"I recommend whether or not somebody has an attorney to learn as much about the legal system as possible," she said.