July 7, 2010

Fools competent to represent themselves at trial

Buffoonery doesn’t qualify under Edwards, appellates rule

Two hucksters were not incompetent to represent themselves despite engaging in "nonsensical antics" during their month-long jury trial, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week.

Defendants Kurt F. Johnson and Dale Scott Heineman were convicted of conspiracy and 34 counts of mail fraud stemming from a debt-elimination program in which they took more than $3 million from as many as 3,500 homeowners throughout 35 states. The basic premise of their so-called "Dorean Process" was that homeowners should stop paying on their mortgages because banks were being unfair, and take out new loans on which the defendants earned sizeable commissions.

During their trial, the defendants filed "meaningless and nonsensical documents" and advanced "an absurd legal theory wrapped up in Uniform Commercial Code gibberish," the appellate court stated. They insisted on wearing jail attire in front of the jury, and one of their "recurring themes in their colloquies with the court was their peculiar theory that they were 'sentient human beings' " distinct from the capitalized titles by which they were referred to in court documents.

A forensic evaluator, James R. Missett, M.D., Ph.D., had evaluated them before trial and testified at a pretrial hearing that neither had a diagnosable mental disorder. Further, the defendants adamantly insisted on representing themselves, even after the trial judge repeatedly warned them about the dangers and "practically begged them to accept counsel."

The appeal was brought under Indiana v. Edwards, which was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, after their trial concluded. That opinion set out a higher standard for self representation than for competency to stand trial when represented by an attorney. Interestingly, however, the trial court had carefully probed and made a record of the defendants' competency to represent themselves, even before Edswards established a higher standard.

Said the Ninth Circuit:
"The record clearly shows that the defendants are fools, but that is not the same as being incompetent.... The behavior of the defendants during the trial in this case, while occasionally wacky, was not disruptive or defiant…. [T]hey did not exhibit a blatant disregard for courtroom rules or protocol and did not make it impossible for the court to administer fair proceedings. In fact, they made opening statements, closing arguments, cross-examined witnesses, argued jury instructions, and testified on their own behalf…. They were examined by a psychiatrist and found to be fine. In the absence of any mental illness or uncontrollable behavior, they had the right to present their unorthodox defenses and argue their theories to the bitter end."
Additional background: Defendant Kurt Johnson’s gibberish-laden blog, The Dorean Group, gives a flavor of the defendants' anti-government, religious rhetoric. Attorney Rachel Dollar's Mortgage Fraud blog cites some examples of the pair's wild legal motions. And fraud prevention consultant Chuck Gallagher discusses some of the interesting ethical issues involved in homeowners' willingness to rely upon the defendants' assertions. My 2008 analysis of Indiana v. Edwards is HERE.

Hat tip: Kathleen

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