WASHINGTON – Ahmad Edwards stole a pair of shoes from an Indianapolis department store in 1999. Fleeing,he fired three shots,hitting a passerby and a security guard.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in his case Wednesday,but the issue wasn't his guilt or innocence. Indiana v. Edwards raised the question of whether a mentally ill person,lacking communication skills but competent to stand trial,should be allowed to represent himself.
Over two trials,Edwards,diagnosed as schizophrenic,was convicted of attempted murder,battery with a deadly weapon,criminal recklessness and theft. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Indiana Solicitor General Thomas M. Fisher argued Wednesday that states can set a higher standard of competency for self representation than for standing trial. Edwards was declared competent to stand trial,meaning he understood the charges and could communicate with his lawyer.
The arguments centered on the Sixth Amendment and previous Supreme Court rulings,which establish defendants' rights to represent themselves.
Fisher also noted that defendants who dismiss their lawyers may not have the skills and abilities to ensure a fair trial.
Mark T. Stancil,arguing Edwards' side,said the Sixth Amendment right to self representation is paramount,even if it might lead to an easier conviction. He said courts are equipped to deal with issues of self representation.
“The state can make an objection,” Stencil said. “The idea that we'd have to listen to 20 or 30 minutes or hours of rants is overblown.”
Justice David H. Souter seemed concerned that,if mentally ill defendants are allowed to represent themselves,mistrials would become more common.
“By the time it becomes farcical,the damage is done,” Souter said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted a letter Edwards wrote to the Indiana judge in his case: “Listen to this case,the 18 foundations of my cause. The Criminal Rule 4. Court's 19 territory,acknowledged May 29,2001,abandoned for the young American citizen to bring a permissive 21 intervention acting as the forces to predict my future 22 disgrace by the court to motion young Americans to 23 gather against crime.”
When she finished reading the letter,she said,”Now that's not an isolated incident. This record is full of that kind of statement coming from this defendant.”
She asked if it would be up to the judge to explain the defendant to the jury,placing herself in the role of a trial judge.
“Then I'm becoming involved myself in a consulting role,not as an impartial judge of this case any more,but as a kind of facilitator for the defendant,” Ginsburg said.
Stancil maintained Edwards could represent himself well enough. For example,he said,the trial judge asked him about voir dire,the process for screening jurors,and Edwards was able to describe it correctly.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy quipped: “There are all kinds of nuts who could get 90 percent on the bar exam,” drawing laughter from the audience.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked where the line is between a defendant who can adequately represent himself and one who is not competent.
Fisher responded,”Well,again,I think that there is a qualitative,realistic line to be drawn between someone who maybe has bad ideas and bad judgments and someone who just cannot communicate what those judgments are.”
After his arrest,Edwards was confined in an Indiana state mental hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Not until 2004 did a court,in consultation with psychiatrists,declare him competent to stand trial.
Edwards asked to represent himself without a lawyer,a request denied by the trial judge,who concluded that Edwards was not aware enough to voluntarily waive his right to a lawyer.
The court is expected to decide the case by early summer.