Joseph Naso, 77, told Judge Andrew Sweet that he doesn't think he can afford to hire a lawyer.
"An attorney would exhaust all my resources," Naso said.
He also said he has other reasons for his request.
"There are issues in this case and things going on behind the curtain that I can better prepare for than an attorney," Naso said.
The judge put the matter over until Friday morning to allow a public defender to meet with Naso later today for more discussion.
Sweet said he is concerned that Naso doesn't understand that he might not have to pay for an attorney. He also said, however, that the public defender's office has informed him that Naso may not be eligible for its services.
Marin County District Attorney Ed Berberian said outside of court after the 40-minute hearing that he still believes Naso has about $1 million in liquid assets.
Naso is charged with four counts of murder for the killings of Roxene Roggasch, 18, of Oakland, whose body was found on Jan. 10, 1977, on White's Hill near Fairfax, and Carmen Colon, 22, who was found dead near Port Costa in Contra Costa County in 1978.
He is also accused in the deaths of Pamela Parsons, 38, and Tracey Tafoya, 31, who were murdered in Yuba County in 1993 and 1994, respectively.
The charges come with special-circumstance allegations for committing multiple murders, which makes him eligible for the death penalty.
Berberian has said he will decide whether to seek the death penalty in the case after the attorney issue has been resolved.
Naso is being held in Marin County Jail without bail.