Thursday, March 27, 2008

Supreme Court Considers 6th Amendment Rights of Mentally Ill Defendants

On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Indiana v. Edwards, a case challenging a lower court ruling that a mentally ill defendant is disallowed from representing himself in Court. The question of whether this denial violated the defendant’s 6th Amendment rights was the central issue of the hearing.

In this case, the defendant, Ahmad Edwards, was charged with attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon. The defendant was suffering from schizophrenia and delusional disorders which prevented an immediate trial. Later, Edwards was found fit to stand trial and attempted to represent himself in the proceedings. However, the Judge denied defendant’s request for this self-representation. Edwards was convicted and appealed; the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the conviction based on defendant’s denial of his 6th Amendment rights.

Indiana Solicitor General, Thomas Fisher, argued that the initial trial judge was proper in preventing Edwards from representing himself as he feels the granting of such request would have led to the trial “descending into farce”. Additionally, he argued that the test for allowing such self-representation would be whether the defendant could coherently communicate; without the possibility of coherent communication, “the point of a trial – designed to be adversarial – is lost.”

Edward’s attorney claims that “the idea that a jury would be forced to listen to ‘rants’ was ‘overblown’.” With court rules in place, he feels that the judge would be able to control the self-represented defendant as he would any other attorney. He argued that the defendant’s 6th Amendment rights should not be denied due to concerns of potential problems.

At least two justices, Kennedy and Souter, seem to be siding with Indiana in this case. Addressing the need for coherent communication, Justice Kennedy compared the failure to communicate to “two ships passing in the night, or in the case of some defendants, about five ships passing in the night." As to the trial judge being able to use court rules to rein in a self-represented defendant who may go to far, Justice Souter stated that by the time the judge steps in in such manner, "the damage is done."

On the other side of the debate, Justice Scalia seems to have sided more with the defendant in this action. Instead of disallowing a person to represent himself or herself based on merely potential problems, Justice Scalia suggests that the court first, “[g]ive it a try.” He seems to agree with the defendant that these potential problems are not sufficient to deny a person his or her Constitutional rights.

While the protection of a person’s Constitutional rights are of utmost concern, this case appears to provide a rare instance for denying those rights. As counsel for the state and Justice Kennedy suggest, without coherent communication the adversarial process does not work. The ability to defend yourself and question witnesses would seem to require a higher level of competence and ability than to merely stand trial.

On the other hand, defendant and Justice Scalia’s arguments do not appear very persuasive, at least to me. To “[g]ive it a try” and act after the fact would seem to only provide remedies that would be too late. As Justice Souter stated, at such point, “the damage is done” meaning that the only available remedy may be a mistrial and refiling of the case. By imposing these higher standards regarding self-representation, such problems should be limited while still ensuring that the defendant is ably and properly represented.

For the full article from the USA Today, click here.

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