ILNews

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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  1. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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