Split COA grants new trial to defendant denied pro se request

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A split Indiana Court of Appeals has granted a new trial to a man who was convicted after he was refused his right to represent himself in his criminal case. The majority found the defendant timely filed and was unjustly denied his pro se request.

After being charged in Elkhart Superior Court with dealing in cocaine, unlawful possession of a firearm, resisting law enforcement and operating a vehicle with a suspended license, Charles Grays was found indigent and was appointed a public defender to represent him in court.

Ten days before his final pretrial conference, Grays requested to proceed pro se and signed a waiver of attorney form to do so, but that form was not ruled on by the judge. During an additional hearing held four days before his scheduled trial, a second judge denied Grays’ request, finding “it was clear” that Grays did not have a clear grasp of the ramifications of representing himself and that he had repeatedly interjected his version of the law and misstated legal concepts.

To support its decision, the trial court concluded Grays did not make a knowing, intelligent, voluntary, or timely waiver of counsel based on his lack of legal training and ultimately found he “did not present a clear and unequivocal request to proceed pro se, and it was not presented to the [c]ourt within a reasonable time prior to jury trial[.]”

Grays objected to the denial but was ultimately found guilty on all counts. In his pro se appeal, he argued that the trial court denied him the right of self-representation, and that he was entitled to a new trial.

A divided Indiana Court of Appeals panel agreed, finding the request had been timely filed and that Grays knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his right to counsel.

In its ruling, the appellate court majority rejected the state’s assertion that Grays’ request to proceed pro se was untimely, finding fault with its explanation that the request was a spontaneous offer once Grays realized he would not be appointed replacement counsel as he had requested.

“Here, Grays requested to proceed pro se ten days before trial after expressing dissatisfaction and conflict with his attorney,” Judge Margret Robb wrote in the majority opinion joined by Judge James Kirsch. “It does not appear that Grays requested to proceed pro se ‘merely seek[ing] delay for its own sake.’ Indeed, Grays repeatedly affirmed that he would proceed to trial as planned and we view the trial court’s decision to hold a separate hearing on his request as support that Grays made a timely request.”

It also concluded competency reports filed with the trial court before Grays made his requests indicated that Grays was at odds with his attorney and did not feel that he was being represented properly. The report also stated that Grays appeared to have a decent understanding of the charges and their seriousness, as well as a decent understanding of the judicial process.

“The evidence in the record illustrates that Grays had the requisite background, education, and experience to make a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of counsel. Instead, the trial court focused solely on Grays’ lack of legal training,” Robb wrote for the majority. “It is improper for a trial court to deny a defendant’s request for self-representation due to the defendant’s lack of legal knowledge.

“Grays was an experienced criminal litigant and had been sufficiently informed of the dangers and disadvantages of representing himself at the hearings and in the waiver of attorney form,” the majority continued.

The appellate court thus concluded that Grays was competent and made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of counsel and the trial court improperly denied his request to proceed pro se. It therefore reversed and remanded the case in a memorandum decision, Charles D. Grays v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-1994.

Judge Patricia Riley dissented from majority decision, noting that although the appellate court reviews the trial court decision on the waiver of the fundamental right to counsel with deference, it also should indulge in every reasonable presumption against the right of self-representation.

“Given our standard of review, the presumption against the waiver of counsel, and the facts and circumstances of this case, I would affirm the trial court’s determination,” Riley opined. “For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.”


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