Schizophrenia News: Legal Briefing

  • March 26, 2008.

     

    The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Indiana v. Edwards, 07-208 to determine whether a defendant judged competent to stand trial has the right to be his own lawyer, even if he has a history of serious mental illness. At stake is whether the need to ensure a fair trial outweighs the defendant's interests in autonomy. Do individual states have the right to assess more rigorously the competency of someone with schizophrenia to try his case "pro se," or does that violate such a person's right to due process under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution?

     

    Our highest court will return an opinion in June. Here now, I'll report and you decide for yourself the outcome.

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    In 2005, Ahmad Edwards was convicted of attempted murder and other charges, stemming from an incident six years earlier where he shot a security guard who chased after him out of an Indianapolis department store. Edwards had stolen a pair of shoes, yet argued that his action was in self-defense. Originally deemed unfit to stand trial, after a round of drug treatments, the judge vetted his competency, yet denied his request to represent himself and an attorney was hired to try Edwards' case.

     

    Sentenced to 30 years in jail, Edwards appealed and Indiana courts ruled his right to represent himself had been violated, citing a U.S. high court decision from 1993. The courts overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial. Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter petitioned for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, saying, the right to self-representation is not absolute.

     

    At issue is whether a person with schizophrenia would decompensate from the pressure of acting as his own lawyer, and thus his mental condition would render him unable to communicate coherently with the court and jury. At worse, this would jeopardize his right to a fair trial, and in the extreme, it would render the legal proceeding a farce.

     

    Hold on here. I'm certain that Elyn Saks, the University of Southern California Gould School of Law Chair, who wrote the Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, could brainstorm not barnstorm through her own trial if she was arrested for a crime. Is that possible for most people diagnosed with a mental illness? Maybe not. If it were, I'd say, "By all means, be your own attorney."

     

    According to the Supreme Court justices, they will consider in the Edwards case "whether states may impose a higher standard for measuring a defendant's competency to be his own lawyer than when determining he is competent to stand trial." Department of Justice attorneys, in an amicus brief for the United States, argue that "mentally ill defendants may legitimately be restricted from self-representation at trial" when the substantial governmental interest in the fairness of criminal proceedings outweighs a defendant's request to proceed pro se.

     

    In their brief, they cite one recent analysis of federal district court docket sheets that estimated over 20 percent of pro se federal defendants exhibited signs of mental illness sufficient to cause the court to order a competency examination.

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    We need look no further for proof of this trend than in the case of Scott Panetti, a killer from Texas with a mental illness, who was judged competent to stand trial and allowed to represent himself. He dressed in purple cowboy clothing, and his witness list included Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy. Originally he was sentenced to execution, and the Supreme Court reversed the decision.

     

    Now, the legal system isn't a Monopoly game where buying and selling fake hotels makes you a would-be Donald Trump. This comes under the heading of "Don't Try This in Court": counterfeit cowboys need not apply.

     

    Trained as a researcher at Pratt Institute, I spent untold hours at the Brooklyn Law School library, doing legal research. Even I would not presume to represent myself.

     

    In my defense, I'd want Johnnie Cochran.

     

     

     

Published On: March 26, 2008