Linda Greenhouse reports, "Self-Representation by the Mentally Ill Is Curbed," in today's New York Times.
A mentally ill defendant who is nonetheless competent to stand trial is not necessarily competent to dispense with a lawyer and represent himself, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
The court said that judges could “take realistic account of the particular defendant’s mental capacities” and, in the interest of achieving a fair trial, deny the constitutional right to self-representation that criminal defendants ordinarily enjoy.
The 7-to-2 decision overturned a ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court that had found that a schizophrenic man was entitled to a new trial on a charge of attempted murder because the trial judge had improperly denied his request to represent himself.
The defendant, Ahmad Edwards, who was sometimes quite coherent and at other times decidedly not so, had differed with his lawyer over defense strategy. He wanted to argue self-defense, while his lawyer wanted to present a defense based on lack of intent.
A landmark Supreme Court decision in 1975, Faretta v. California, established the right to self-representation as a basic constitutional right.
Writing for the majority on Thursday, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the question in this case was answered neither by the Faretta decision, which did not involve a competency issue, nor by a subsequent decision that permitted a mentally ill defendant to waive the right to counsel and plead guilty.
In the Washington Post, Robert Barnes writes, "Supreme Court Rules On Self-Representation."
The self-representation case decided yesterday involved Ahmad Edwards, a delusional and schizophrenic man who fired shots outside an Indianapolis department store after attempting to steal shoes. It was only after six years in custody that he was found competent to stand trial. A judge insisted Edwards be represented by counsel, and he was found guilty of attempted murder, among other charges.
The Indiana Supreme Court said he should get a new trial, because U.S. Supreme Court precedents recognized a Sixth Amendment right of defendants to represent themselves at trial.
Breyer said it was not necessary to overrule cases such as 1975's Faretta v. California, which held that defendants have a right to self-representation even if it is likely to result in conviction. He said new studies have shown that instances of unfair trials are not widespread, and that giving judges the authority to insist upon the assistance of counsel will minimize them further.
"Supreme Court Limits Self-Representation by Mentally Ill Defendants," is Tony Mauro's coverage in Legal Times.
In the case on self-representation, Justice Stephen Breyer said the traditional test for competence to stand trial -- the ability to consult with counsel and to assist in preparing the defense -- does not weigh the additional skills needed to represent oneself. Someone competent to stand trial, Breyer wrote, may nonetheless "be unable to carry out the basic tasks needed to present his own defense without the help of counsel."
Breyer cited an American Psychiatric Association brief that said the kind of disorganized thinking and impaired expression that characterize severe mental illness can seriously hamper a defendant's "significantly expanded role required for self-representation even if he can play the lesser role of represented defendant."
The Court also said that in some instances, denying a defendant the right to self-representation will promote rather than deny the dignity of the defendant. "The spectacle that could result from [a mentally ill defendant's] self-representation at trial is at least as likely to prove humiliating as ennobling," Breyer wrote.
Mark Sherman's AP dispatch is, "Court limits self-representation for mentally ill."
Last term, the high court saw what could happen in these kinds of cases in the proceedings against Scott Panetti, a mentally ill killer from Texas who was nonetheless judged competent to stand trial and allowed to represent himself.
Panetti was convicted and sentenced to death after personally arguing that only an insane person could prove the insanity defense. He dressed in cowboy clothing and submitted an initial witness list that included Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy.
The court blocked his execution in June, in a ruling that did not address his role in his own defense.
If you missed it yesterday, Lyle Denniston had first-class analysis at SCOTUS Blog, "Faretta survives, with limits."
The Edwards opinion by Breyer, in dealing with mentally ill individuals who voice a desired to be their own defense counsel, provides one clear implication, and one quite unclear prospect.
It is clear, simply from the result, that states may now have one standard of mentally competency for putting a mentally impaired person on trial, and a higher standard that such a person would have to meet in order to be allowed self-representation. Ahmad Edwards had been found competent to be put on trial, but not to represent himself.
What is unclear, though, is what the higher standard is for representing one’s self when mental competency is at issue. The Court expressly rejected a proposal by the state of Indiana that self-representation be denied whenever the accused “cannot communicate coherently with the court or a jury.” The state had suggested that approach, saying it “fits Sixth Amendment doctrine, which allows some balancing of interests when defendants attempt self-representation.”