Court Rules that Mentally Disturbed Defendants Can Be Competent to Stand Trial But Incompetent to Represent Themselves

The Supreme Court continued the downward spiral of our insanity rules this week. The majority held that a defendant can be held to be competent to stand trial but held incompetent to represent himself — a green light for judges to continue to find clearly crazed individuals sane while denying them the right to act in their own defense. Justices Scalia and Thomas wrote a stinging and well-founded dissent.

At issue was the demand for self-representation made by Ahmad Edwards, a schizophrenic, who was found sane under the low standards applied in most states today. However, he was found to be incompetent in self-representation. For a prior column on the case, click here.

Writing for the majority on Thursday, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that district courts could “take realistic account of the particular defendant’s mental capacities” in denying the right of self-representation. The decision overturned the decision of the Indiana Supreme Court. It is a rollback on the right of self-representation articulated in 1975 in the Faretta v. California decision.

Some of us have long argued that the standard for the competence to stand trial should be the same as the competence to serve as your own attorney. Currently, clearly deranged defendants are deemed sane, but courts want to avoid the unpleasant appearance of their insanity during self-representation. Under the current approach, courts can maintain the not-so-noble lie that defendants are sane by preventing them from playing a role in the trial.

Yet, Breyer ruled out such a unified rule. He insisted that district courts “will often prove best able to make more fine-tuned mental capacity decisions, tailored to the individual circumstances of a particular defendant.” Right. The decision is an invitation for judges to make their lives easier by preventing self-representation. This is precisely the view made by Scalia in his dissent.

Once you are ready to be done with Justice Antonin Scalia, he comes out with an opinion where he proves his value on the Court. That is my view of the 7-2 decision in Indiana v. Edwards, No. 07-208.

Scalia objected to the decision as “the epitome of both actual and apparent unfairness.” He warned that it would merely give “trial judges . . . every incentive to make their lives easier” by denying self-representation. He noted that “[t]he dignity at issue is the supreme human dignity of being master of one’s fate rather than a ward of the state — the dignity of individual choice.”

For discussion of the opinion, click here and here.

12 thoughts on “Court Rules that Mentally Disturbed Defendants Can Be Competent to Stand Trial But Incompetent to Represent Themselves

  1. Wow – that changes everything. What about Godinez? For years, I have believed that competency to represent oneself is the same as competency to stand trial. Has anyone read this who can chime in with how the Court got around Godinez?

  2. So if a defendant during his/her judicial odyssey pleads temporary insanity, am I to assume the defendant would not be able to temporarily represent himself.

  3. As a former psychotherapist, who spent many years dealing with people who were severely mentally disabled, my conclusion is that most laws and procedures dealing with insanity and competence have no reflection in reality. They are generally the product of Judges, lawyers and politicians who don’t understand the ramifications of mental illness. Then too, to be fair, many mental health professionals also have little understanding of what they are doing.

    I’m not claiming any superior insight in this field, merely an expression of the fact that the scientific underpinning of mental health theory is weak and many practitioners sound far more authoritative than they have a right to be, given the evidence underlying their beliefs. We are years away from the law dealing sensibly with mental illness and competence. I’m sorry to say that in this case though I find myself siding with Scalia for the first time.
    Defending oneself at trial should not be based on the comfort level of the court.

    If one remembers the televised trial of the Long Island Railroad killer several years ago, his handling of his defense pretty much proved the proposition that he was insane. The old dictum of understanding the difference between right or wrong is not only puerile in terms of defining legal insanity, it’s roots are more Judeo-Christian, than they are evolution of legal theory.

  4. Is it me, or does this firmly cement the maxim:

    “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client”

  5. Being competent and having knowledge of legal expertise in case law from states and the U.S. Supreme Court are no comparison. The trickery of prosecutors and judges in false statements need to be handled by a trial attorney who is well read in the law and in the case he is representing. All evidence needs to be presented – every little piece. All physical and mental medical records. An accused can sit in jail and become physical worn down which decreases his mental capibilities of self-represention. The jury that is picked in some district courts are not the most educated. Juries are sometimes intimidated by the prosecution, as are witnesses, especially in small districts. Good trial attorneys are aware of prosecutor tricks with evidence, demeaning the accused, and sometimes misinterpeting the truth. In the interest of a fair and just trial every criminal defendant should have a well read trial attorney who know every step of the case. Without a lawyer knowing the case, the defendant, competent or not, may as well throw up his hands and say ‘take me’. And all judges are not fair. They are elected officials, not appointed by their fairness or their knowledge of constitutional law, and have little to no knowledge of physical or mental disabilities.

  6. Being competent and having knowledge of legal expertise in case law from states and the U.S. Supreme Court are no comparison. The trickery of prosecutors and judges in false statements need to be handled by a trial attorney who is well read in the law and in the case he is representing. All evidence needs to be presented – every little piece. All physical and mental medical records. An accused can sit in jail and become physical worn down which decreases his mental capibilities of self-represention. The jury that is picked in some district courts are not the most educated. Juries are sometimes intimidated by the prosecution, as are witnesses, especially in small districts. Good trial attorneys are aware of prosecutor tricks with evidence, demeaning the accused, and sometimes misinterpeting the truth.

  7. Bob pretty much sums up my feeling about representing oneself in court.
    However, I think that people should have a right to be that foolish, or that crazy, with their freedom and life at stake. The problem is the system and its definition of mental incompetence. I would suggest that anyone who wants to represent themselves in court might well be mentally incompetent.

    However, like everything else regarding the law there are caveats. We know that there are many people who are represented by public defenders, or pro bono lawyers, who are poorly and/or incompetently represented. Also many Legal Aid Attorneys are dedicated, competent and idealistic, but carry caseloads that severely limit their effectiveness. Most of us who post here will be lucky enough to find good legal help when we need it. However, what does an indigent person, being represented by an indifferent (or incompetent) attorney do and how do they even determine the ability of their legal representation? It seems to me that attorneys are on a par with physicians when it comes to self policing.

  8. my son was made to repesent him self and the judge knew he has mental promables and he can’t read or read. his attorney withdrew on the spot to be his wittness and the made him be own attorney and was allowed to really question the officers.who had but him a restrianed chair and had handcuffed and chains on him they drove him out of his mind because they didn’t give him his medinice and teased him and we don’t know to get some one to sue these so called law in forcement

  9. Evelyn Smith,

    I am not aware if the policy of this list serve or law blawg is the correct place to be asking these questions.

    However, if you city they have attorneys that might be able to help you. If not consult the state Bar in that state and ask them if you can have a telephone number of an attorney that can help you or point you in the correct direction. Such as the Public defenders organization of the American Civil Liberties Union also known as ACLU.

    If what you tell this list serve you might have other options to consider, However, I do not feel that anyone here including Attorneys can give you information which is sufficient in a privileged and confidential manner that would be protected under the Attorney Client relationship.

    What you have stated in what they have done to your son raises a whole host of Appealable issues, I would think and other protections under the American with Disabilities Act also known as the ADA.

    If I am incorrect I would hope that someone more seasoned could help you.

    It appears mame that you are somewhat computer literate, you might try Lawyers.com or google up the ALCU and also if you google up Civil Rights Attorneys some should show up on the computer screen.

    Best of luck to you.

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