June 19, 2008 / 3:29 PM / 9 years ago

Court: mentally ill defendant can't be own lawyer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mentally ill criminal defendants who have been found competent to stand trial can be denied the right to represent themselves, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

States can insist, without violating the U.S. Constitution, that defendants who are competent enough to stand trial must have a lawyer if their severe mental illness means they are unable to represent themselves, the court said.

The court majority, in an opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, concluded the state can deny such defendants the right to represent themselves.

The 7-2 ruling was a victory for the state of Indiana and the Bush administration, which argued the government’s interest in fair criminal proceedings can outweigh a defendant’s request to proceed as his own lawyer.

Breyer said the trial judge will often prove best able to reject a request from such defendants to be their own lawyer, based on a particular defendant’s individual circumstances.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which had supported the state, hailed the ruling.

“The court has cleared the way for states to adopt guidelines preventing marginally competent defendants from representing themselves at trial,” said the foundation’s legal director Kent Scheidegger.

“This will help to assure that mentally ill defendants receive a competent defense while preventing them from acting out their delusions before a judge and jury,” he said.

The case involved Ahmad Edwards, who was convicted of attempted murder and other charges in 2005 following a shooting outside an Indianapolis department store in 1999.

Edwards suffers from mental illness, including schizophrenia and delusions. He spent most of the five years after the shooting in state psychiatric facilities.

But by 2005, he was found by psychiatrists and the judge to be competent to stand trial, able to consult with his lawyer and have a rational understanding of the proceedings against him.

But although Edwards wanted to act as his own lawyer, the judge denied his request. Represented by a lawyer, Edwards was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

He appealed and Indiana courts ruled that his constitutional right to represent himself had been violated, overturning his conviction and ordering a new trial.

The Supreme Court set aside the state court ruling for Edwards.

Under past Supreme Court rulings, criminal defendants may be ruled competent to stand trial if they understand the proceedings and are capable of assisting their lawyer.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Scalia wrote that mentally ill defendants who knowingly and voluntarily decide to represent themselves receive a fair trial.

“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 to a fair trial,” Scalia said.

Editing by Deborah Charles

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