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State submits SCOTUS brief in pro se case

January 1, 2008
Trial courts should be able to deny criminal defendants the right to represent themselves when that person can't communicate coherently with the court or jury, the Indiana Attorney General's Office wants the nation's highest court to decide.

The state submitted a brief this week to the Supreme Court of the United States, which will hear arguments March 26 in the Hoosier-based pro se case of Indiana v. Ahmad Edwards, No. 07-208. You can view the 74-page brief online here.

Dating to July 1999, the case is now before the nation's high court following an Indiana Supreme Court ruling in May 2007. Mall surveillance caught Edwards stealing shoes from an Indianapolis store July 12, 1999. While running away outside, he shot at police.

Edwards was charged with 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 wanted to proceed pro se, but the trial court determined he might have been competent for trial but was incapable of representing himself. After a second trial in December 2005, he was convicted of attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon, and was sentenced to a concurrent 30-year sentence. Edwards appealed on several issues, including that he was denied his right to represent himself. The state's two highest appellate courts reversed that and ordered a new trial.

Last May, Indiana's justices relied on precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court that it deemed binding, but also ripe for a possible review by the nation's highest court. Decisions cited include landmark cases 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.

Now, the state argues that the Sixth Amendment allows state trial courts to impose a higher standard of competency for self-representation than for standing trial because courts are permitted to balance the interests of any defendant. Faretta doesn't prohibit a court from refusing to allow a defendant from proceeding pro se if he or she can't effectively communicate with the court or jury, the state contends.

"For a defendant who cannot communicate, in other words, waiving trial counsel is tantamount to waiving a fair trial in a way that it is for a defendant who can communicate, but who may otherwise do a poor job of representing himself," the brief states, also urging the court to consider overruling its Faretta decision if it conflicts with what the state is proposing.

The state argues that dissenting justices in the 1975 ruling noted, "a right to self-representation is without solid textual, structural, or historical foundation."

Edwards' attorneys have until March 5 to submit their brief.
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