COA finds no evidence of severe mental illness to prohibit pro se proceedings

September 28, 2016

A woman’s convictions for possession of controlled substances and operating a vehicle while intoxicated will stand after the Indiana Court of Appeals found Wednesday that she did not suffer from a severe mental illness that should have precluded her from proceeding pro se.

After a Delphi police officer stopped Susan Sturdivant’s pickup for failing to use a turn signal twice in August 2014, officers found marijuana and a clear baggie containing methamphetamine in the truck. Sturdivant also tested positive for meth, so she was arrested and charged with possession of meth, possession of marijuana, operating while intoxicated and operating with a controlled substance in her body.

Although Sturdivant initially said that she intended to represent herself in the case of Susan E. Sturdivant v. State of Indiana, 08A02-1601-CR-186, she accepted a Carroll Superior Court-appointed attorney in March 2015. However, the attorney filed a motion to withdraw from appointment in June 2015, citing a breakdown in communication, and Sturdivant once again told the court she would represent herself.

Throughout the trial, court documents show that Sturdivant made several strange statements, asked odd questions of witnesses and showed a significant lack of legal knowledge.

A jury convicted Sturdivant on all charges in the case, and during sentencing the trial court said it believed Sturdivant could have had “some undiagnosed mental illness,” which was found to be a mitigating factor.

Sturdivant then appealed her convictions — with an attorney’s representation — saying that the trial court should not have let her proceed pro se because she suffers from a severe mental illness. She argued that her waiver of her right to counsel was not knowing and intelligent, and that she made “bizarre statements” and “incorrect and unusual legal arguments” that should have indicated to the Carroll Superior Court that she was not mentally capable of proceeding without an attorney’s representation.

Specifically, Sturdivant pointed to Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164, 178 (2008), in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that a trial court can insist that a defendant have representation if the defendant “suffer(s) from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves.”

But in its Wednesday affirmation, the Indiana Court of Appeals wrote that Sturdivant’s strange statements during trial did not constitute severe mental illness under Edwards. Further, the appellate court wrote that there was no evidence of Sturdivant being evaluated by a mental-health professional to receive a mental illness diagnosis.

But Sturdivant also argued that if the Carroll Superior Court had pushed the issue further, they would have learned that she was court-ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluations in two previous cases. But the Court of Appeals said Wednesday that the knowledge of those court orders would not have led the Carroll Superior Court to insist that she should not have proceeded through the trial pro se.


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