Former Funeral Home owner asks for permission to defend himself

There's a new twist in the case of the man at the center of the Forest Hill Funeral Home controversy.

In court, Clayton Smart told Judge Otis Higgs he cannot afford an attorney, and that he wants to defend himself.

"I'll just have to represent myself because I don't have any money," said Smart.

Judge Higgs is growing weary of waiting for someone to defend Smart. "I mean every utterance is I don't have any money," said Higgs.

Smart, the former owner of the funeral home, is charged with stealing millions of dollars from more than 13,000 burial policy holders.

Last month, Smart pleaded the 5th Amendment when ordered to disclose his financial assets.  A judge held him in contempt of court, which means he will remain incarcerated while his legal proceedings play out.

Finding where Smart is keeping his money is critical to state attorneys, who say they want to recover as much as they can to return it to policy holders.

Wednesday in court, Smart told a judge that the missing money doesn't belong to him, and even if a chancery court was to unfreeze some of his assets, he would not be able to afford an attorney. "And I know that I'm innocent, I did not take any money. Nobody's proven me to and I know that for a fact and I know I can take their paperwork and prove them wrong," said Smart.

Even though Smart has no criminal law experience, Higgs said he would allow Smart to defend himself.

Prosecutor Mike Myer said Smart is taking a risk defending himself.

"As anybody who represents themselves there's the usual everybody knows the perils involved in that," said Myer.

Prosecutors also suggest Smart has been moving money while in his Shelby County jail cell.

Attorneys submitted portions of numerous phone conversations between Smart and his wife. Knowing full well his jail conversations are being recorded, Smart discusses his financial situation with his wife.

Nancy Smart: "How did it go?"

Smart: "Well, nothing. I have to have a public defender. Nancy I don't have any money.

Nancy Smart: "Yes you do."

Smart refers to money that can be used to retain an attorney.

Smart: "I'll see him today or tomorrow. May just give him 50 and have him defend me here and take a court appointed attorney in Michigan."

Smart later orders his wife to liquidate their assets, including a home.

Smart: "If that place does sell and in fact you do get the money and you can turn around and you can dispose of it quickly, go to Tunica and lose it all."

The idea that Smart may be hiding cash was appalling to victims of the Forest Hill cemetary scam.

"To me, that was arrogance or maybe lack of a better word stupidity," said Don Foshee.

Victims of the Forest Hill Funeral home scam who were in court hope the case can now begin to move forward.

So far, $15.2 million has been recovered in the case, but none of that money has been directly related to Smart.  The money, placed primarily in company holdings and trust funds, is something Smart has distanced himself from.

Meanwhile, state prosecutors said on Wednesday that they have reason to believe that Smart has instructed his wife from jail to liquidate some of his property and money in an attempt to keep those things from being seized.

It's a legal saga that isn't likely to be resolved any time soon.


to email Anna Marie Hartman.