Release Date:  March 24, 2008
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Oral argument in Indiana v. Edwards set for Wednesday, March 26

The United States Supreme Court will hear argument Wednesday in a case regarding whether the Constitution requires states to let criminal defendants who suffer from mental illness represent themselves.  The Indiana Supreme Court held that it does.

At issue in Indiana v. Edwards is whether the Court’s 1975 decision in Faretta v. California leaves states with any leeway to enforce guidelines allowing the denial of self-representation based upon a defendant’s mental competency.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has joined the case to encourage a decision which would allow states to limit this right in cases where the defendant’s mental competence is marginal.

“A motion for self-representation by a marginally competent defendant places the trial judge in a difficult position,” said CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.  “The defendant will claim error whichever way the judge rules.  In some cases, mentally ill defendants have made travesties of their trials.  This case provides the Court with an opportunity to correct this problem,” he added

Prior to the Faretta decision, some state constitutions granted criminal defendants the right to represent themselves, and a number of federal courts granted the right.  The Faretta decision identified this as national consensus and concluded that the right to represent one’s self was part of the “fundamental nature” of the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel.  Justice Potter Stewart wrote in the majority opinion that “. . . forcing a lawyer upon an unwilling defendant is contrary to his basic right to defend himself if he truly wants to do so.”

The Edwards case involves the 2005 conviction of Ahmad Edwards for attempted murder and battery.  On July 12, 1999, a security guard at an Indianapolis department store caught Edwards stealing a pair of shoes.  During a struggle, Edwards pulled a .40 caliber handgun and fired three shots, grazing the guard and hitting a bystander in the leg.  As Edwards fled, a passing FBI agent gave chase confronting him in a parking garage.  When Edwards pointed his gun at him, the agent drew his weapon and shot him in the leg.  Between 1999 and 2004 Edwards, who had a long history of mental illness, was found incompetent to stand trial three times.  After five years of treatment in state mental health facilities, a doctor declared him competent to stand trial with the assistance of an attorney.

At the first trial, the judge denied Edwards’ request to act as his own attorney.  The jury later found him guilty of theft and criminal recklessness, but hung on the attempted murder and battery charges.

Prior to the second trial, Edwards again petitioned to represent himself.  The court denied the request, citing his long history of mental illness, delusions, and communication problems.  The second jury found Edwards guilty as charged, and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

On appeal, Edwards argued that the trial court had denied his constitutional right to represent himself.  The state court of appeals agreed, overturning his conviction.  In a later decision, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, announcing that the U. S. Supreme Court precedent required the trial judge to grant Edwards’ request to represent himself.

When the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Indiana’s appeal, CJLF filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in support.  The Foundation argues that many of the state and federal courts which had afforded defendants the right to self-representation prior to the Faretta decision had agreed that the right could be limited to assure a fair and orderly trial.  CJLF notes that the high court has allowed the states to set reasonable limits to other constitutional rights and that a requirement so rigid that trial judges are forced to allow mentally ill defendants to represent themselves undermines the public’s right to the fair and reliable administration of justice.  A decision adopting this position will allow every state to prevent incompetent defendants from wasting tax dollars and valuable court and juror time.