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Court limits defendant's right to act as own lawyer

  • Story Highlights
  • Justices: Some defendants not be mentally competent to represent selves
  • Thomas, Scalia dissent, saying judges motivated to make trials go smoothly
  • Case involved Indiana man who may be schizophrenic
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By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a state has the right to prevent a possibly schizophrenic defendant from serving as his own lawyer in a criminal court.

The Supreme Court, ruling in an Indiana case, made it harder for some defendants to represent themselves in court.

The justices concluded, 7-2, that trial judges had discretion to take "realistic account" of an Indiana man's mental capacities in the case of self-representation.

At issue is whether the fundamental right of an accused person to represent himself or herself applies to those whose are competent enough to stand trial, but perhaps not enough to plead their own defense.

The state wanted a higher standard of competency for those representing themselves than for those standing trial with the help of a lawyer.

"The trial judge," wrote Justice Stephen Breyer for the majority, "will often prove best able to make more fine-tuned mental capacity decisions, tailored to the individualized circumstances of a particular defendant."

Thursday's case dealt with Ahmad Edwards, charged with attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon relating to a 1999 incident in which he fired shots after trying to steal shoes at a downtown Indianapolis department store. He fled but was eventually cornered by an FBI agent, who shot him when he refused to surrender.

Over the next few months various psychiatrists offered conflicting conclusions on whether he had schizophrenia, and state criminal courts went back and forth as well over his competency to stand trial and to represent himself.

Edwards was eventually found competent to stand trial, and in June 2005, with the help of standby lawyers, was convicted on charges of criminal recklessness and theft. Standby lawyers are appointed by the court to advise defendants who represent themselves, and can step in if defendants change their mind.

In Edwards' case, the judge was forced to declare a mistrial on two other counts -- attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon -- on which the jury could reach no decision.

During a second trial, Edwards again insisted on representing himself and had his attorneys removed. But the trial court ruled that Edwards, though competent to stand trial, lacked the additional capability required to conduct a defense. With defense attorneys present, he was convicted of the remaining two counts.

He appealed those convictions. They were overturned when Indiana agreed that his right to represent himself had been violated.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling "extraordinarily vague," saying it gives little guidance to trial courts. And he warned judges "have every incentive to make their lives easier" by denying a defendant's wish to be his own lawyer. Scalia was supported by Justice Clarence Thomas.

The Supreme Court has generally upheld the right of self-representation, but Justice Samuel Alito spoke for many of his colleagues in March oral arguments. "It is the rare case in which a lay defendant can adequately represent himself or herself," he said. "Where do you draw the line?"

Edwards' appellate attorney told the justices that standby trial counsel could assist someone like Edwards, and even take over the case if the trial descended into chaos or incoherence.

The Bush administration supported Indiana in the Edwards appeal. "To force the state to have the train wreck occur" would be wrong, Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben told the high court. "This judge did the responsible thing."

The Indiana case was cited by a defense lawyer in the recent arraignment of five suspected high level al Qaeda terrorists being held in a U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and his fellow defendants asked a military judge they be allowed to represent themselves in court.

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