At first glance, Ahmad Edwards' filing (1) with an Indiana trial court might seem to a neophyte in the courtroom like just another piece of inscrutable legal verbiage: "The costs of the story (Trial Rule 60) has a derivative property, that is: my knowledged events as not unexpended to contract the membered clients is the commission of finding a facilitie for this plan or project to become organization of administrative recommendations conditioned by governors."
Not far into the excerpt, however, it becomes clear that something is seriously wrong. Indeed it is. Edwards, who was on trial for a bungled attempt to steal a pair of shoes, was severely mentally ill. So when he asked to dispense with legal representation and act as his own attorney, the court faced a difficult decision. Was the trial court judge obliged to honor Edwards' right of self-representation, or could the judge give greater weight to protecting a psychotic defendant from the potentially serious consequences of his choice? This column examines these questions in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's precedents on related issues and the ultimate decision in this case.
Edwards' saga began in July 1999, when he was discovered trying to steal a pair of shoes from a department store. On being detected, he drew his gun, shot at a guard, and wounded a bystander. This unfortunate sequence of events resulted in charges for crimes ranging from theft to attempted murder. Before he could stand trial, however, Edwards was found incompetent to proceed and committed to a state hospital. His condition fluctuated over the next five years, before he was ultimately deemed competent and sent to trial in June 2005. When at the last minute Edwards asked to represent himself, the judge denied his request on the grounds that it would require a delay before the trial could begin. An attorney acted on Edwards' behalf, and the jury convicted him on some charges but deadlocked on the more serious counts.
That set the stage for a second trial on the remaining charges and a replay of the earlier events. Once more Edwards asked to act as his own lawyer, and once more the court said no. This time, however, the trial judge based his ruling on a controversial proposition of law: Edwards, though competent to stand trial if represented by an attorney, was not sufficiently competent to be able to represent himself. The trial proceeded, and Edwards was convicted of battery and attempted murder.
To understand why the judge's denial of Edward's second request to represent himself was controversial, one needs to recall earlier U.S. Supreme Court precedents on competence to stand trial and on self-representation. The basic rule regarding a defendant's competence to stand trial was stated in Dusky v. U.S. (2), a 1960 decision. Defendants are not competent unless they have "a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against [them]," along with "sufficient present ability to consult with [their] lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding." By the time of Edward's second trial, six-and-a-half years after his offense, no one questioned that he met the Dusky standard.
At this point, a second U.S. Supreme Court decision became relevant as well. In 1975 a majority of the justices held that a criminal defendant had a constitutional right to reject the appointment of counsel and to represent himself at trial. The decision in this case, Faretta v. California (3), was based largely on what might be considered a creative interpretation of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads in relevant part: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." Reasoning that having the "assistance" of counsel must mean that the defendant is really in charge and thus could elect to do without such assistance, the Court sought support for its interpretation in English and colonial legal history and in the practices of the states. As long as the defendant knowingly and voluntarily declined the assistance of counsel, the Court held, he had the right to act on his own behalf in court.
Combining the instruction provided by Dusky and by Faretta, it would appear that Edwards, now a competent defendant, could elect to represent himself, as long as he was knowledgeable about the right he was surrendering and did so without coercion. Did the fact that he was mentally ill make a difference? Here, yet a third major Supreme Court ruling came into play. In 1993 in the case of Richard Allan Moran, a man who appeared to be seriously depressed, the Court held that as long as he met the Dusky standard for competence to stand trial, no more rigorous test would be applied to determine if he was competent to waive the right to an attorney and to plead guilty (4,5). In effect, the majority in Godinez v. Moran held that Dusky defined competence for all purposes related to a criminal proceeding.
The trial court judge in Edwards clearly faced a dilemma. He appeared to doubt Edwards' ability to defend himself at trial, yet there seemed to be no dispute that he met the Dusky standard and had knowingly and voluntarily relinquished his right to counsel. Setting his own compass and avoiding what appeared to be the clear implication of the earlier cases, the judge declared, "[H]e's competent to stand trial but I'm not going to find that he's competent to defend himself." After Edwards was again convicted, he appealed to an appellate tribunal the court's refusal to permit him to represent himself. The appellate court found for Edwards and ordered a new trial. This time, the state of Indiana took the appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court. Examining the U.S. Supreme Court precedents, the Indiana justices concluded that although "the record in this case presents a substantial basis to agree with the trial court [that Edwards could not capably represent himself]," they were constrained by the previous cases to conclude that Edwards should have been allowed to do so (6).
Indiana appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that court to consider directly what had been addressed only implicitly in its earlier rulings: whether the Constitution required the trial court to allow an obviously impaired man to represent himself. One suspects that the specter of cases in which psychotic defendants had made a mockery of trial procedures was before its eyes. The highly publicized case of Colin Ferguson, "the Long Island Railroad shooter," in the early 1990s is but one notorious example (7). In those cases, neither the interests of the defendant in an adequate defense nor the interests of the state in maintaining the dignity of the adjudicatory process appeared to have been served.
Justice Breyer, who wrote the majority opinion for the Supreme Court, began by noting that no previous decision of the Court had squarely addressed the issue that the justices now faced. Godinez v. Moran, arguably the decision that came closest, refused to apply a standard higher than that in the Dusky case to a defendant who asked to dispense with counsel so that he could plead guilty. Since Moran did not desire to proceed to trial, the question of his capacity to defend himself in front of a jury never had to be considered. Indeed, the very language of the Dusky decision, which spoke of "a defendant's present ability to consult with his lawyer," seemed to assume representation. Nor did Faretta, which set out a broad right of self-representation, explicitly consider whether that right might be limited for defendants whose mental illnesses could interfere with their abilities to present their cases. Considering the issue an "open" one, Justice Breyer laid out a rationale for allowing states to limit a defendant's right to self-representation "on the ground that the defendant lacks the mental capacity to conduct his trial defense unless represented."
Breyer's argument rested on four pillars. First, he found evidence in the previous decisions that they were compatible with limitations on self-representation in cases such as Edwards. Second, the justice recognized that mental illnesses could produce varied patterns of deficits: some defendants might be able to perform certain functions, such as consulting with an attorney, while not necessarily being capable of performing others, including arguing their case before a jury. Citing the amicus curiae brief filed by the American Psychiatric Association, Justice Breyer noted that common symptoms of severe mental illnesses could interfere with precisely the abilities most relevant to conducting one's own case and that this in fact seemed to be illustrated by the record in Edwards.
Third, given that the right to self-representation was premised, at least in part, on affirming the dignity and autonomy of the defendant, Breyer pointed out that for a defendant with severe impairments, "the spectacle that could well result from his self-representation at trial is at least as likely to prove humiliating as ennobling." This seems to be a reasonable conclusion from the highly publicized cases of self-representation, such as Colin Ferguson's. Finally, Breyer recalled the dictum that trials must not only be fair but must appear to be fair, and he cited an older case that argued, "No trial can be fair that leaves the defense to a man who is insane, unaided by counsel, and who by reason of his mental condition stands helpless and alone before the court" (8).
However, although the majority held that in some cases a defendant with a mental illness could be denied the right of self-representation, it declined to elaborate a specific standard by which to determine when such a situation existed (Indiana had suggested "where the defendant cannot communicate coherently with the court or a jury") or to overrule Faretta's holding that defendants can generally decide to represent themselves. With regard to the latter, the court cited a recent study that indicated that self-representation was quite uncommon, and in 80% of cases it did not appear to be associated with overt signs of mental illness (9). Although the court also noted the study's conclusion that defendants who represented themselves were less likely to be convicted of felonies, the small sample and the researcher's failure to control for such variables as the nature of the charges and the strength of the prosecution's case or to statistically test her conclusions render that pronouncement somewhat more dubious.
Justices Scalia and Thomas, on the libertarian wing of the court, dissented from the majority opinion. They stressed the rationale in Faretta, which had established the constitutional footing for a right of self-representation, that is, "a nearly universal conviction, on the part of our people as well as our courts, that forcing a lawyer upon an unwilling defendant is contrary to his basic right to defend himself if he truly wants to do so." That a defendant might be so impaired as a result of a mental illness as to be unable to challenge witnesses or make a coherent case to the jury did not, in their view, measure up against "the supreme human dignity of being master of one's fate rather than a ward of the State—the dignity of individual choice." Indeed, when the decision was reported the following day, a number of media outlets echoed this theme, as in the Associated Press report (10) that began, "Mentally ill criminal defendants don't have the same constitutional rights as everyone else, the Supreme Court said yesterday."
The contrast between the majority and the dissenters reflects the long-standing tension in mental health law between autonomy—allowing persons to make their own choices—and paternalism—acting against persons' desires in order to protect their interests. Although no person's autonomous choices should be interfered with lightly, when abiding by a person's decisions undermines both the person's underlying interests and other important societal values, the balance can reasonably tip toward acting to protect an impaired person. Here, as the majority appeared to grasp, when mental illness compromises a person's ability to make his case before the court, neither autonomy nor dignity are served. And if public trust in the fairness of the trial process is simultaneously compromised, the argument for intervention becomes all the stronger. The decision in Edwards will stand as a clear recognition by the court of the functional impact of severe mental illnesses and of the occasional need to protect persons from their consequences.