When the crazy represent themselves

Washington Post:

It was six years after Ahmad Edwards was charged with firing a gun outside an Indianapolis department store that the delusional and schizophrenic man finally was found competent to stand trial. And when the day arrived, Edwards believed he should be his own attorney.

An Indiana judge said no.

In lively arguments yesterday that included the plight of the mentally ill, fantasies about Martians and no shortage of lawyer jokes, the Supreme Court considered whether that decision violated Edwards's right under the Sixth Amendment to represent himself at his trial.

The federal government and 19 states have joined Indiana in urging the court to find that government should be able to set a higher standard for whether a defendant may represent himself than simply whether he has been judged competent to stand trial.

Indiana Solicitor General Thomas M. Fisher told the court that states have an interest in ensuring that trials are orderly processes, fair to both prosecution and defendant, rather than incoherent proceedings "descending into a farce."

But Mark T. Stancil, who is representing Edwards, said the Constitution and the court's precedents require that when a defendant is found competent to stand trial, he must be allowed to represent himself if he chooses.


Several justices did not seem comfortable with Fisher's proposed test that a judge could override the right if a defendant could not "communicate coherently" with a judge or jury.

Scalia said that sounded like some lawyers he knew. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wondered about the defendant, who could quite clearly communicate to the jury that "Martians did it." Justice Anthony M. Kennedy hypothesized a defendant who was quite capable of communicating to the jury, but whose goal was to turn the trial into a farce.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer seemed an advocate of letting judges find a way to make sure the mentally ill were represented. "Very disturbed people are being deprived and end up in prison because they're disturbed rather than because they're guilty," he said.

As an arbitraitor I have on occasion had claimants representing themselves. None were certifiably crazy, but they all did a bad job of presenting their case and made my job much more difficult. I constantly had to remind them that cross examination required that they ask questions and not shout insults at the other side. They all had difficulty crafting questions that could survive objections. Even when the respondent's attorney gave them great leeway the hearings were incoherent and the usual result was that their claims were denied.

Several years ago when living in Houston, I was called to jury duty and to my surprise selected to be a juror on malpractice case where a man represented himself. It lasted three painful days before the judge dismissed the case. The guy was going up against a very competent defense attorney who gave him no slack and a judge who enforced the rules of evidence. It was not a fair fight even though the plaintiff was treated fairly.

I am also reminded of a report of a criminal case where the judge was sentencing a man who had represented himself. Upon hearing his sentence the defendant said "Judge, you can kiss my ass."

The Judge responded, "Motion denied."


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