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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ind. Decisions - More on "Cert. Granted in Indiana v. Edwards"

"Protecting defendants in spite of themselves" is the title to this column by Daniel Leddy, who writes the weekly On the Law series for the Staten Island Advance. Here are some quotes from the end of the long column:

It's obvious that the trial court tried its best to insure that Edwards, a man with serious mental deficits, was treated fairly. It twice deemed him incapable of standing trial and, when the case finally did proceed to trial, assigned an attorney to protect his rights.

It is also a safe bet that had Edwards been allowed to represent himself and nevertheless been convicted, he would have been arguing on appeal that the trial judge should have denied his request and accorded him legal representation. In fact, that precise type of flip-flop is common among criminal defendants who, in reality, want it both ways.

In reversing Edwards' conviction, the Indiana Supreme Court acknowledged that the trial court's decision to assign him an attorney "was, at a minimum, reasonable." It also conceded that such determinations might indeed be better made by trial judges who are "closer to the firing line".

Still, in granting a new trial for Edwards, the appellate court felt itself bound by a 1993 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Godinez v. Moran. In that matter, the court held that once a defendant is found capable of standing trial, he is thereby automatically deemed capable of deciding whether to represent himself. In reality, however, the two issues are markedly different.

In 1960, the Supreme Court held that a defendant is capable of standing trial when he has "sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding" and has a "rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him."

However, a person could meet that rather low standard and yet be incapable of adequately representing himself at trial. This becomes obvious when one considers that even the brightest, most savvy defendant would be at a distinct disadvantage trying to hold his own against a skilled prosecutor.

By agreeing to entertain the prosecution's appeal in the Edwards case, the U.S. Supreme Court has indicated a willingness to revaluate the standard that a defendant must meet before he can be deemed capable of representing himself. That's a good thing because the Indiana trial court diligently tried to protect Edwards' rights, only to get reversed for its efforts and ordered to accord him a new trial that he really doesn't deserve.

See the Friday, Dec. 7th ILB entry, announcing the cert grant, here.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 11, 2007 01:37 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions