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Indiana v. Edwards & Competency

This morning the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Indiana v. Edwards. The Court considered the issue of whether a defendant who is found competent to stand trial may be denied the right to represent himself because of mental illness issues.

In an opinion authored by Justice Breyer, which was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Alito, the Court held that a state may require the appointment of counsel to represent a defendant who is competent to stand trial but not competent enough to represent himself at trial.

In reaching this decision, the Court considered its cases on competency, Dusky v. United States and Drope v. Missouri, and its cases on self-representation, Faretta v. California and Godinez v. Moran. These cases framed the question presented, but did not answer it as Dusky and Drope define competency as whether the defendant has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him and whether he has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer and assist in preparing his defense; and Faretta, which recognizes the 6th Amendment right of a defendant to represent himself at trial, did not consider the problem of mental competency. The Court noted that the right of self-representation is not absolute as there is no right of self-representation on direct appeal, appointment of standby counsel over objection is permissible, and counsel may be ordered over objection if the defant fails to follow relevant procedural and substantive law or abuses the dignity of the courtroom. The Court next distinguished Godinez, which held that the standard for competency to stand trial is also applicable to the issue of whether a defendant is competent to enter a guilty plea, by finding that the ability to conduct a defense at trial was expressly not at issue.

In finding that a state may limit the right of self representation, the Court noted "the nature of the problem before us cautions against the use of a single mental competency standard for deciding both (1) whether a defendant who is represented by counsel can go to trial and (2) whether a defendant who goes to trial must be permitted to represent himself. Mental illness itself is not a unitary concept. It varies in degree. It can vary over time. It interferes with an individual's functioning at different times in different ways. . . . In certain instances an individual may well be able to satisfy Dusky's mental competence standard, for he will be able to work with counsel at trial, yet at the same time he may be unable to carry out the basic tasks needed to present his own defense without the help of counsel."

The bottom line is that "the Constitution permits States to insist upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial under Dusky but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves."

Also of interest is the Court's rejection of Indiana's proposed standard which would "deny a criminal defendant the right to represent himself at trial where the defendant cannot communicate coherently with the court or a jury." The Court also rejects Indiana's request that Faretta be overruled.

The Nevada Supreme Court has issued several opinions which touch on the issue presented by Indiana v. Edwards. It has held that "before allowing a defendant to waive counsel and represent himself, the trial court must ensure that the defendant is competent and that the waiver of counsel is knowing voluntary and intelligent." Hymon v. State, 121 Nev. 200, 212, 111 P.3d 1092, 1101 (2005). In Tanksley v. State, 113 Nev. 997, 1000-01, 946 P.2d 146, 150 (1997), the Court held that "A criminal defendant has an 'unqualified right' to represent himself at trial so long as his waiver of counsel is intelligent and voluntary." (citing Baker v. State, 97 Nev. 634, 636, 637 P.2d 1217, 1218 (1981) (in turn citing Faretta ) (overruled on other grounds by Lyons v. State, 106 Nev. 438, 796 P.2d 210 (1990)). "In assessing a waiver, the question before the district court is not whether the defendant can competently represent himself, but whether he can knowingly and voluntarily waive his right to counsel. 'The defendant's technical knowledge is not the relevant inquiry. In order for a defendant's waiver of right to counsel to withstand constitutional scrutiny, the judge need only be convinced that the defendant made his decision with a clear comprehension of the attendant risks.'" Id. (citing Graves v. State, 112 Nev. 118, 124, 912 P.2d 234, 238 (1996) (in turn citing Faretta). "Furthermore, a request for self-representation may not be denied solely because the court considers the defendant to lack reasonable legal skills or because of the inherent inconvenience often caused by pro se litigants.'" Lyons, 106 Nev. at 444 n.1, 796 P.2d at 217 n.1. "However, a defendant may be denied his right to self-representation where his request is untimely, the request is equivocal, the request is made solely for the purpose of delay, the defendant abuses his right by disrupting the judicial process, or the defendant is incompetent to waive his right to counsel." Id. (citing Lyons, 106 Nev. at 443-44, 796 P.2d at 213).

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