/ June 22, 2008

Supreme Court Decides on Self-Representation for Mentally Ill

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an Indiana trial court judge’s right to refuse a defendant’s request for self-representation, stating that the mental capacity of the defendant could compromise his competency and right to a fair trial.

In Indiana v. Edwards, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded the decision from the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the defendant’s right to a pro se trial. Ahmad Edwards, accused of attempted murder during a robbery in 1999, insisted on representing himself in court, despite his recorded history of mental illness and schizophrenia. While he was found capable of standing trial, the judge, who did not feel he would be fully able to construct his own defense, assigned him two attorneys. Edwards was convicted, but successfully appealed the decision in the Indiana courts on the grounds that he should have been permitted to represent himself.

In the 7-2 Supreme Court decision, the court ruled that the trial judge, who was familiar with the full details of Edwards’ mental health screenings, was best able to determine his capacity to defend himself. In the dissent, Justice Alito expressed his reservations about where to draw the line in determining the competency of pro se litigants. Invoking the 14th Amendment, Alito states:

“In my view 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—a specific right long understood as essential to a fair trial.”

Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s decision? Please leave your comments below.

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