Justices rule on competency for pro se representation

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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The federal constitutional right to self-representation requires a defendant who is competent to stand trial be allowed to proceed pro se, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled.

Justices granted transfer and issued a unanimous decision Thursday afternoon in Ahmad Edwards v. State of Indiana, No. 59S02-0705-CR-202. Justice Theodore Boehm wrote the 10-page opinion summarily affirming the Indiana Court of Appeals' rationale in a September decision that reversed the convictions for attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon and now means a new trial for Edwards.

In its decision, the justices relied on precedent from the Supreme Court of the United States that it deemed binding but ripe with a need for possible review by the nation's high court. Cases cited include the landmark cases of Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), which held courts could not force a lawyer upon a defendant wanting his or her own self-representation; and Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389 (1993), that held the standard of competence to waive the right to counsel is the same standard of competence to stand trial.

"We have sympathy for the view that a trial court should be afforded some discretion to make that call," Justice Boehm wrote. "The record in this case presents a substantial basis to agree with the trial court and thus presents an opportunity to revisit the holdings of Faretta and Godinez, if the Supreme Court of the United States decides that is to be done. However, as it stands today, we are bound by these authorities as Supreme Court precedent."

In September, Indiana's lower appellate court's panel cited the same precedent in determining that Marion Superior Judge Grant Hawkins erred in denying Edwards' request to represent himself in a second trial, inasmuch that it had earlier found him competent to stand trial.

This case stems from a downtown Indianapolis incident in July 1999 in where Edwards was caught on surveillance stealing a pair of shores from Parisian at Circle Centre Mall.

A loss prevention officer followed and approached Edwards on a street corner to stop him, but Edwards pulled out a gun and fired two shots at the officer who hit the pavement and signaled that he was unarmed. Edwards began walking away, but then he turned and pointed the gun at the officer's head, firing a third shot from seven feet away and striking a bystander in the right leg. One bullet had grazed the officer's back.

A special FBI agent driving by witnessed the activity and chased Edwards into a parking garage, where he exchanged gunfire and wounded Edwards before arresting him.

Edwards was charged with felony attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon that summer, but his jury trial was delayed during the next five years as he was found to be competent and incompetent to stand trial at different times. He was ultimately ruled competent and a jury trial began in June 2005, but the jury couldn't reach a decision and a mistrial was declared.

Edwards then moved to proceed pro se. The trial court conducted a hearing and determined that Edwards was competent to stand trial but incapable of representing himself. He was sentenced in January 2006 to a concurrent 30-year sentence. Edwards appealed on several issues, including that he was denied his right to represent himself.

In its Sept. 18 decision, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the convictions and wrote, "The Supreme Court of the United States and of Indiana have pronounced that one's competency to represent oneself at trial is measured by one's competency to stand trial, and that the standard for the former may not be higher than the standard for the latter."

The appellate court emphasized on remand that if Edwards still wants to represent himself, the trial court must ensure his waiver of that right be both knowing and voluntary and that Edwards be made aware of the nature, extent, and importance of the right and consequences of waiving that right.

"If the trial court concludes that Edwards is incapable of making a knowing and voluntary waiver and/or understanding the consequences of this waiver, it should articulate the factors causing it to arrive at that conclusion," the court wrote.The case now goes back to Marion County for a new trial.

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