Split Supreme Court upholds denial of LWOP defendant’s pro se request

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A murder defendant convicted and sentenced to life without parole failed to convince a majority of the Indiana Supreme Court that the trial court improperly denied his request to proceed pro se. The majority provided an analysis for considering pro se requests in capital and LWOP sentences, but minority justices raised concerns about the majority “till(ing) new constitutional soil.”

Justice Christopher Goff wrote for the court in Zachariah Brian Wright v. State of Indiana, 20S-LW-260. Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Steven David fully concurred, while Justice Mark Massa concurred in result. Justice Geoffrey Slaughter dissented.

The case began in June 2017, when Zachariah Wright embarked on a “crime spree,” stealing a bike from a Boone County home before breaking into another home and stealing another bike and other items. Later, Sonja Foster woke to find Wright standing in her bedroom doorway.

Wright entered the room quickly and began stabbing Foster’s husband, Max, while she struck Wright with a baseball bat. Wright slashed Sonja across the face and she fled, but Wright later caught her and attempted to set her clothes on fire.

Wright eventually fled and disposed of his boots in a pond. Sonja called for help, but her husband died after being stabbed more than 30 times.

Wright was caught and charged with murder, Level 3 felony criminal confinement, Level 6 felony theft, Level 5 felony burglary and Level 2 felony attempted burglary. The state sought the death penalty, and Wright was appointed counsel.

When the Boone Superior Court denied Wright’s requests for new counsel, he asked to represent himself, claiming his lawyers were refusing to request a speedy trial. The court warned Wright of the risks of proceeding pro se and Wright said he understood. But the trial court denied his petition, finding that although Wright knowingly requested to proceed pro se, his request was “based upon a misapprehended understanding of the law, not an intelligent one.”

The state later withdrew its death penalty request in favor of life without parole. Wright waived his right to a jury, and the trial court found him guilty as charged and sentenced him to life plus 18 years.

Wright then sought direct appeal to the Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court erred by denying his request to proceed pro se, and that his sentence was inappropriate. But the majority justices affirmed in full on Tuesday.

“In short, without meaningful adversarial testing by professionally trained counsel, there are few, if any, safeguards to protect the state’s heightened-reliability interest when a pro se defendant proves unwilling or unable to present the necessary mitigating evidence at trial,” Goff wrote for the majority. “And for this reason, a trial court exercising jurisdiction over LWOP and death-penalty cases must tailor its self-representation inquiry to reflect ‘the state’s interest in preserving the orderly processes of criminal justice.’”

The scope of that inquiry will be case-specific, the majority held, but in a death penalty or LWOP case should include:

  • “whether and to what extent the defendant has prior experience with the legal system;
  • the scope of the defendant’s knowledge of criminal law, legal procedures, rules of evidence, and sentencing; and
  • whether and to what extent the defendant can articulate and present any possible defenses, including lesser-included offenses and mitigating evidence.”

“In considering these factors, a court should ‘indulge in every reasonable presumption against waiver’ of the right to counsel,” Goff wrote, citing Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387, 404 (1977). “If, however, after carefully assessing the factors outlined above, a court permits a pro se defense, we strongly urge that court to appoint stand-by counsel to assist the defendant in reaching his ‘clearly indicated goals.’ … And when a pro se defendant fails to present mitigating evidence, a trial court may appoint amicus counsel to compile and argue that evidence.”

That process does not conflict with Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), the seminal case on the right to self-representation, as long as stand-by counsel doesn’t interfere with a defendant’s personal defense, Goff wrote.

Applying that analysis to Wright’s case, the majority found Wright’s request to proceed pro se was knowing and voluntary but not unequivocal or intelligent.

“His shift in preference for counsel between his initial hearing and the appointment of capital-qualified attorneys five months later reveals his early wavering on the issue,” Goff wrote, noting Wright initially asked for new counsel before asking to represent himself. “… This clear request for representation directly conflicts with any autonomy interest Wright may have held before trial.”

Further, while he had prior experience with the legal system and had undertaken independent legal studies while incarcerated, “the scope of Wright’s knowledge of the criminal law, legal procedures, rules of evidence, and sentencing appears limited at best.

“While insisting that his ‘attorneys ha[d]n’t even challenged the death penalty,’ he conceded, when prompted by the trial court, that it was ‘premature’ to conclude ‘whether the death penalty could be challenged or not in this case.’ … What’s more, at the conclusion of the colloquy, Wright informed the court of ‘five motions’ he wanted to file, and then proceeded to ask the court how to go about filing them, demonstrating a lack of knowledge on the most basic procedural rules,” Goff wrote.

“… And while these factors may not have led us to the same conclusion in a case with less at stake, the state has a much stronger interest in ensuring a fair trial in this capital-turned-LWOP case,” the majority concluded.

In also affirming Wright’s LWOP sentence, the majority noted Wright committed multiple crimes against multiple victims and could have walked away from the Fosters’ home rather than entering the bedroom and killing Max. His character also did not warrant sentence revision, the justices held.

In a footnote, the court remanded the case for a minor correction to the sentencing order.

But in an 11-page dissent, Justice Slaughter wrote that he would have ordered a new trial for Wright.

Specifically, Slaughter wrote, “the trial court’s lengthy colloquy detailing the risks of proceeding pro se ‘opened’ Wright’s eyes and made his waiver intelligent.” What’s more, he said, Wright’s “repeated requests” to proceed pro se made his request unequivocal.

Also, the dissent continued, the majority “adds the need to ‘tailor’ an application of Faretta’s factors based on the State’s interest in ensuring a fair and reliable criminal process in a capital case. … But Supreme Court precedent does not support such ‘tailoring’ of competing interests when the defendant timely asserts the right to proceed pro se.

“… To be sure, a defendant’s waiver may be ill-advised. But, as the Supreme Court observes, ‘[p]ersonal liberties are not rooted in the law of averages’, but in the law’s ‘respect for the individual’. Faretta, 422 U.S. at 834 (cleaned up),” Slaughter concluded. “A right premised on respect for individual freedom must include the freedom to make mistakes — even those with dire consequences. It is when the stakes for the criminal defendant are most grave that the law’s ‘respect for the individual’ should be at its highest.”

In a concurrence with the majority, Justice Massa said it was “hard to quarrel” with much of Slaughter’s dissent, as the majority “tills new constitutional soil in suggesting the standard for waiving the right to counsel varies depending on the seriousness of the case. … I thus cannot join much of the Court’s opinion for reasons sufficiently explained by the dissent.

“However,” Massa continued, “I am convinced that the trial court sifted through all of Wright’s various assertions — both written and oral — on more than one occasion, and concluded that what he ultimately wanted was to hire his own private counsel, or at least have his old counsel back. His waiver, therefore, was not unequivocal, and the trial court should be affirmed.”

The majority addressed one portion of the dissent in a footnote: Slaughter’s holding that “whether a waiver of counsel is ‘intelligent’’’ turns simply on the question of “whether ‘the defendant knows what he is doing and his choice is made with eyes open.’”

“We acknowledge that the U.S. Supreme Court has been less than clear in distinguishing ‘intelligent’ from ‘knowing,’” Goff wrote. “… But even if those two terms — intelligent and knowing — go hand in hand, it’s clear to us that the courts have required something more than just asking whether a defendant ‘knew the dangers and disadvantages’ of self-representation.”

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