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High court rules on self-representation issue

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The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a trial court's ruling that a defendant who was competent enough to stand trial wasn't competent to represent himself at trial, an issue on remand from the Supreme Court of the United States.

In Ahmad Edwards v. State of Indiana, No. 49S02-0705-CR-202, the justices unanimously agreed the denial of Ahmad Edward's request to act pro se at his criminal trial didn't violate his federal or state constitutional right to self-representation. Edwards wanted to represent himself at his second trial, when he was convicted of attempted murder and battery. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the convictions and the Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court.

The Supreme Court of the United States vacated the state's Supreme Court's judgment, holding that the federal Constitution permits judges to take a realistic account of the particular defendant's mental capacities and allows states to insist upon counsel for those competent enough to stand trial under Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960), but not represent themselves.

On remand, the Indiana Supreme Court had to determine whether the trial court found Edwards suffered from a severe mental illness such that he wasn't competent to conduct trial proceedings on his own and if the record supports this. Edwards had three mental competency determinations over the course of three years.

Justice Theodore Boehm wrote the Indiana Supreme Court had two alternatives: resolve the issue before them or remand for a hearing in which the issue is Edwards' mental illness as of December 2005 when his second trial was held. The justices concluded the trial court's findings and body of evidence available at the trial court's consideration took away any need for a retrospective competency hearing.

Although there is conflicting evidence as to whether or not Edwards was competent or if his mental illness was improving, the Supreme Court had to consider his competency when he wanted to represent himself in 2005 at trial. The psychiatric evaluations of Edwards sometimes disagree, but they overwhelmingly confirm that he suffered from severe and pervasive mental illness, Justice Boehm wrote. As such the evidence and circumstances support the trial court finding he wasn't competent enough to stand trial.

The Supreme Court also examined Edwards' claim under Article I, Section 13 of the Indiana Constitution and concluded the right to self-representation of mentally impaired persons under Section 13 is no broader than that guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment, wrote the justice.

Although the Indiana constitution states the accused has the right "to be heard by himself" and doesn't express a preference for whether the defendant or counsel should take the steps to be heard, the justices ruled the accused's right "to be heard by himself" isn't an unlimited right to conduct all trial proceedings on his or her own.

The high court also declined - as the state requested - to adopt a Section 13 standard allowing courts to "deny a criminal defendant the right to represent himself at trial where the defendant cannot communicate coherently with the court or jury."

"The federal constitution establishes rights that the states may choose to expand, but the Supremacy Clause precludes any state doctrine that restricts a federal constitutional right," wrote Justice Boehm. "Edwards describes a limitation on the general federal constitutional right to self-representation, and the Supreme Court expressed uncertainty as to how the State's proposal would 'work in practice' and declined to adopt it as a federal standard."

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