June 19, 2008

Mentally ill: No constitutional right to self representation

A few months ago, I blogged about an important case out of Indiana, pertaining to whether the mentally ill have a right to represent themselves in court. As many of you may recall, this Constitutional right led to the farcical and ironic spectacle of a railroad killer railroading himself straight to prison.

That was Colin Ferguson (satirized by Saturday Night Live here). We have witnessed similar spectacles in other cases of floridly psychotic people acting as their own attorneys. Another example that I blogged about several times was Scott Panetti, who rambled insanely at his 1995 murder trial and tried to subpoena Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and other dead people.

It's an easy conviction for the prosecution, of course. But it is hardly fair. And certainly not dignified.

In today's 7-2 ruling in the case of Indiana v. Edwards, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the mentally ill do not have the same constitutional rights as everyone else. Even though someone may be competent to stand trial with the help of a lawyer, a judge may force the defendant to accept an attorney if the trial might otherwise be a farce.

"The Constitution permits states to insist upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial ... but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority.

Proponents of allowing mentally ill defendants to represent themselves despite questionable understanding and judgment cite the Sixth Amendment's right to self-representation. Legal scholar Michael Perlin calls this argument a "pretextual" rationalization for injustice.

Today's decision involved Ahmad Edwards, a delusional schizophrenic man whom a trial judge ruled was competent to stand trial for a robbery-shooting but incompetent to represent himself. Edwards had an attorney but was convicted anyway, prompting his appeal. This ruling will likely reinstate his conviction.

The imposition of a higher standard for self representation than for other facets of competency to stand trial seems at odds with the high court’s earlier holding in Godinez v. Moran. Clarence Thomas, the author of that 1993 opinion, dissented in Thursday's ruling, as did fellow conservative jurist Antonin Scalia.

"In my view, the Constitution does not permit a state to substitute its own perception of fairness for the defendant's right to make his own case before the jury," Scalia said.

The full opinion in Indiana v. Edwards (07-208) is available here. USA Today has more here. My previous blog post on the case is here. Photo credit: afsilva, "The Railroad Ahead" (Creative Commons license).

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