This week's ruling stems from the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case of Indiana v. Edwards, which held that states may set higher standards for self-representation than for competency to proceed to trial with an attorney.
The court upheld the conviction of Andrew D. Johnson of Vallejo, sentenced under California’s three-strikes law to 85 years to life in prison for two severe assaults.
Earlier in the proceedings, a jury had found Johnson competent to stand trial.The trial judge had initially let Johnson represent himself, but changed his mind based on Johnson’s bizarre behavior and filing of nonsensical motions.
The state high court cautioned that trial courts "must apply this standard cautiously," as under normal circumstances defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to represent themselves: "A court may not deny self-representation merely because it believes the matter could be tried more efficiently, or even more fairly, with attorneys on both sides."
No uniform standard
Several interested parties -- including the California Attorney General, San Francisco Public Defender, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, and the Office of the State Public Defender -- had filed amici curiae arguing that California courts should have discretion to deny self-representation to "gray-area" defendants such as Johnson.
In their briefs, these parties proposed various standards for competency for self-representation that the court might adopt. But the court declined to adopt any of these specific standards, or those proposed in two recent law review articles, "pending further guidance from the high court."
In a footnote, the court also suggested that courts may choose to include the question of self-representation competence in routine trial-competency evaluation requests, even when the issue has not been raised.
This will leave court-appointed experts in an awkward position, tasked with evaluating "simply whether the defendant suffers from a severe mental illness to the point where he or she cannot carry out the basic tasks needed to present the defense without the help of counsel."
Such murkiness will increase the complexity of competency evaluations for forensic psychologists and psychiatrists. This is especially problematic in that court-appointed experts are grossly undercompensated, which attracts inexperienced and poorly trained professionals willing to perform what one attorney I know refers to as "drive-by competency evaluations."
When a defendant refuses evaluation
The court said that the when a defendant refuses to be evaluated, the judge and jury must "do the best they can under the circumstances," as occurred here.
At the competency trial, psychologist Kathleen O'Meara, called by the defense, made clear that her opinion was tentative in that it was based solely on transcripts of the pretrial proceedings, defendant's letters, medical records and conversations with correctional staff. She speculated that defendant might have a paranoid delusional disorder, but that he could also be malingering.
Two psychiatrists called by the prosecution, Herb McGrew and Murray Eiland, both testified that it was not possible to form an opinion on competency without interviewing the defendant.
The Edwards decision expands the parens patriae doctrine, subordinating autonomy for ostensible fairness. In deciding that the mentally ill do not have the same constitutional rights as everyone else, the U.S. Supreme Court set up a very difficult situation.
On the one hand, allowing floridly psychotic defendants to represent themselves sanctions court-assisted suicide in that conviction is almost always assured, as in the farcical spectacle of Colin Ferguson's trial in the Long Island Railroad massacre.
On the other hand, since the U.S. trial system gives full authority to the attorney to conduct the defense as he or she sees fit, a defendant who has not consented to legal representation is stripped of the right to present his own defense. And, since no judge wants an inexperienced, potentially disruptive defendant mucking up their courtroom, it is tempting to find a problem defendant competent to stand trial, but then force him to accept an attorney -- and a defense -- that he may not want.
How will Edwards affect competency evaluations? (June 20, 2008 blog post)
Mentally ill: No constitutional right to self representation (June 19, 2008 blog post)
Fools competent to represent themselves at trial: Buffoonery doesn’t qualify under Edwards, appellates rule (July 7, 2010 blog post)
Defending the Right to Self Representation: An Empirical Look at the Pro Se Felony Defendant, Erica J. Hashimoto, North Carolina Law Review (2007) [free, open-access download]
Defending Oneself, Erica Hashimoto