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Legal News
Court to Decide When Defendants Can Act as Own Lawyer
Psychiatric News
Volume 43 Number 10 page 7-7

If defendants are sufficiently mentally competent to stand trial, aren't they automatically competent enough to represent themselves? Not necessarily, warned APA in a brief it recently submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.

APA is one of several mental health advocacy groups to urge a change under the landmark Supreme Court decision 33 years ago, Faretta v. California, which gave criminal defendants the right to represent themselves at trial.

The issue of different levels of competency comes to the Court through the case State of Indiana v. Ahmad Edwards. This case questions whether a criminal defendant with mental illness who was determined competent to stand trial is thus also competent to defend himself without a lawyer.

The case stems from the state trial of Ahmad Edwards, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and originally deemed incompetent to stand trial for robbery and attempted murder. Three years later, after prolonged inpatient treatment, Edwards was found competent to stand trial and was convicted. He also requested to act as his own attorney, a request the trial judge denied, indicating that Edwards' mental illness prevented him from defending himself adequately.

Edwards appealed the ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court, arguing that the lower court violated his right to defend himself because it had deemed him competent to stand trial. The state supreme court ruled that the lower court had violated Edwards' Sixth Amendment right to self-representation.

APA and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law maintain in their brief to the Supreme Court that different levels of competency are needed for proceeding to trial and for self-representation, since mental illness can affect those abilities to different degrees. Patients with mild mental impairment could be fairly tried if they were expected to assist only in a defense led by a competent attorney, while the burden of representing themselves could be much greater and could be compromised by the extent of their mental illness, the amicus brief states.

Self-representation is "not a function that just requires a decision but also an ability to deal with the consequences of that decision," said Paul Appelbaum, M.D., chair of APA's Council on Psychiatry and Law, about the more complex job of acting as an attorney rather than a defendant. Appelbaum, a past president of APA, spoke about the case with Psychiatric News.

Previous court decisions suggest that the standards for competence to stand trial and competence to represent oneself are the same, the state of Indiana maintains in Indiana v. Edwards. One such decision, in the 1993 case Godinez v. Moran, was cited by advocates of a single competency standard. However, during arguments on the Indiana case before the U.S. Supreme Court in March, some justices appeared open to the possibility that different standards should be considered.

Jeffrey Metzner, M.D., chair of APA's Committee on Judicial Action, said in an interview with Psychiatric News that a higher level of competency for self-representation was needed to prevent a trial from descending into a farce.

"If you turn a trial into a farce, it will have the potential of discrediting the criminal justice system, which is not to anyone's benefit," Metzner said.

At the Supreme Court hearing, Justice Stephen Breyer cited a study noted in the APA brief that found that although many defendants who self-represent do well, "a small subclass" of defendants fare badly, according to press reports. He raised the issue of whether a rule would be appropriate that allows states to address this smaller group of people with mental illness.

Metzner said that the number of criminal defendants with mental illness who try to provide their own legal defense is not large. However, the Indiana case could have great significance for people with mental illness who do "get caught up in the criminal justice system," said Apppelbaum. He noted that several recent high-profile cases in which people with mental illness were allowed to represent themselves "turned into circuses."

A comprehensive study in 2007 of federal felony defendants who represented themselves concluded that such defendants made up less than 1 percent of all felony defendants. About 20 percent of this small group showed signs of mental illness, according to the judges, and had competency evaluations ordered. The study was conducted by University of Georgia law school professor Erica Hashimoto.

Unlike many cases that come before the Supreme Court that hinge on criteria for determining mental illness and punishment of people who are mentally ill, the Indiana case is largely focused on a single issue: whether different levels of competency determine the ability of a defendant to stand trial and the ability of a defendant to represent himself or herself, Appelbaum said.

The standard for competence to stand trial was formulated in the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Dusky v. United States. That precedent requires a defendant to have a "sufficient present ability to consult with a lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding" and a" rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him."

Edwards' attorney argued that courts have other tools to deal with trials that may descend into farce, and the right to self-representation is too important to curtail.

The Indiana solicitor general and APA maintained that it is within the state's authority to override that right when the defendant cannot communicate coherently with the court or the jury.

"From our perspective, it's not a hard call," Metzner said. He noted that several psychiatric tools are available to help assess the differing levels of mental capacity needed for both standing trial and self-representation.

The amicus brief is posted at<www.aapl.org/pdf/edwardsbrief2008.pdf>.

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