Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Should Inmates with Severe Mental Illness Be Allowed to Represent Themselves?

Tomorrow, March 26, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the case of Ahmad Edwards, a man with a history of mental illness who was found competent to stand trial but was not allowed to represent himself as he requested. Numerous death penalty cases have involved issues related to competency to stand trial; the Scott Panetti case in particular (cited in the article below) raises the issue of self representation by those with long histories of mental illness.

Here are excerpts from an article that appeared last week in USA Today ("High court to consider self-representation"):

"When Ahmad Edwards appealed his conviction of attempted murder and other charges, the Indiana Supreme Court agreed Edwards had the right to represent himself and reversed his conviction.

The Indiana attorney general's office appealed, arguing that allowing mentally impaired defendants to represent themselves undermines fair trials and erodes public confidence in the system.

'The consequences often are disastrous for both the defendants and the integrity — not to mention dignity — of the criminal justice system,' the Indiana attorney general's office wrote in its brief to the court.

Indiana's position is backed by the Justice Department, 19 other states and the American Bar Association.

Edwards' lawyer counters that the right to represent oneself gives the defendant power in the relationship with his attorney, and states should not have 'unfettered discretion' to place a higher standard on that right for certain defendants.

Since a 1993 Supreme Court ruling addressed the issue of the competency standards for waiving the right to counsel and pleading guilty, at least 60 legally competent but mentally impaired defendants have tried to represent themselves, according to the state.

In 1995, a Texas man defending himself on capital murder charges tried to subpoena Jesus, wore a cowboy outfit to court, and assumed an alternative personality when testifying.

In another case, Colin Ferguson was convicted in 1995 of killing six passengers on the Long Island Railroad after representing himself with the unsuccessful argument that someone else took the gun from his bag and shot the passengers.

Erica Hashimoto, a University of Georgia law school professor who conducted the first comprehensive study of felony defendants who chose to represent themselves, said they represent significantly less than 1% of all felony defendants. About 20% of the federal felony defendants she examined showed signs of mental illness.

And while there are different ways of determining the success of defendants representing themselves in state and federal courts, the bottom line is 'they certainly did not lose all of their cases at trial,' she said.

'To the extent that the states are worried about too many people representing themselves who are mentally ill, I think that's a product of the fact that our standard for competency to stand trial is so low,' she said. 'Once we say a defendant is competent to stand trial, I think it's dangerous to say that he is entitled to less rights than another defendant.' ..."


"The Supreme Court said in the 1975 case Faretta v. California that defendants have a constitutional right to waive counsel at trial if doing so voluntarily and intelligently.

In the 1993 case Godinez v. Moran, the court said the standard for determining competency to stand trial — whether the defendant can understand the proceedings and assist in his defense — is the same standard for waiving the right to counsel and pleading guilty.

Indiana argues that some courts have interpreted that decision to mean that the self-representation standard can't be lower than competency to stand trial, but it can be higher.

In Wisconsin, for example, the state Supreme Court has said trial judges can deny self-representation based on the defendant's education, literacy, fluency in English as well as physical or psychological disabilities.

Edwards' lawyer said Indiana is exaggerating the split in the courts on the issue, and the Supreme Court has already settled that it's the defendant's choice, not his skill, that determines self-representation."

Read the full article.

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