- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008


Several Supreme Court justices suggested yesterday that defendants with a history of mental illness can be judged competent to stand trial or plead guilty, yet forfeit their constitutional right to represent themselves.

The court heard arguments in a case from Indiana in which a judge prevented a defendant from acting as his own lawyer at trial out of concern that the proceedings would become a farce.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that allowing judges’ discretion in those cases could increase public confidence in the criminal justice system and reduce the number of “very disturbed people ending up in prison because they are disturbed, not because they’re guilty.”

Ahmad Edwards was convicted of attempted murder and other charges in 2005 for a shooting six years earlier at an Indianapolis department store.

He was initially found to be schizophrenic, experiencing delusions as well as spending five years in state psychiatric facilities after the shooting. But by 2005, he was judged competent to stand trial.

Edwards asked to represent himself. A judge denied the request because he was concerned the 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 U.S. high court decision from 1993. The courts overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial.

The justices appeared to be concerned with the difficulty trial judges would face if forced to allow defendants like Edwards to represent themselves.

Even if a judge could step in once the trial was under way and order a lawyer to mount a defense, “the damage is done” by that point, Justice David H. Souter said.

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