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Court Draws Line on Right To Defend

Date Posted to Site: 06/20/2008

WASHINGTON - Mentally ill criminal defendants don't have the same constitutional rights as everyone else, the Supreme Court said yesterday in carving out an exception to the right to represent oneself.
The justices said mentally ill defendants could be judged competent to stand trial, yet incapable of acting as their own lawyer. The 7-2 decision said states could give a trial judge discretion to force someone to accept an attorney to represent him or her if the judge is concerned that the trial could turn into a farce.

"The Constitution permits states to insist upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial . . . but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in the majority opinion in Indiana v. Edwards.

The court has previously declared that self-representation is a constitutional right, though not an absolute one.

The ruling was one of five issued yesterday as the court nears the start of a three-month summer break. Ten cases remain to be decided this term, including the landmark consideration of Americans' gun rights, whether Exxon Mobil Corp. must pay punitive damages for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the constitutionality of imposing the death penalty on people convicted of raping children.

The Indiana decision came in the case of Ahmad Edwards, who was convicted of attempted murder and other charges in 2005 for a shooting six years earlier at an Indianapolis department store.

Edwards was initially found to be schizophrenic and suffering from delusions, and he spent most of the five years after the shooting in state psychiatric facilities. But by 2005, he was judged competent to stand trial, meaning a judge determined that Edwards could understand the proceedings and was capable of assisting his lawyer.

But Edwards asked to represent himself. A judge denied the request, concerned that Edwards' trial would not be fair. Edwards, represented by a lawyer, was convicted anyway and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

He appealed, and Indiana courts agreed that his right to represent himself had been violated, citing a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The courts overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial.

Yesterday's ruling probably will lead to the reinstatement of his conviction. The court ratified Indiana's decision to impose a higher standard for measuring a defendant's competency to be his own lawyer than to stand trial.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. "In my view," Scalia wrote, "the Constitution does not permit a state to substitute its own perception of fairness for the defendant's right to make his own case before the jury."

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