Saturday, April 18, 2015

Determining Competency

A recent pair of Sixth Circuit cases elucidate the procedure for determining competency—particularly  when a defendant seeks to represent himself. In such circumstance, there are two questions: (1) whether the defendant is competent to stand trial and (2) whether the defendant is competent to represent himself. Under Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164 (2008), a district court may appoint trial counsel to a defendant incompetent to conduct a trial even if the defendant is competent to stand trial. A defendant may not represent himself in regard to the first question, but apparently may represent himself in regard to the second.

In United States v.Martin, the Sixth Circuit reversed a conviction because “there [was] nothing in the record to suggest that counsel represented [the defendant] at the [competence] hearing or participated in any way in the determination of [the defendant’s] competency.” The Court held that when “a criminal defendant’s competency to stand trial has been challenged, the validity of the defendant’s waiver of counsel is suspended until the issue of his or her competency is resolved.” The participation of standby counsel may be “sufficient only when standby counsel conducts an adequate investigation of the defendant’s competency and subjects the evidence . . . to meaningful adversarial testing.” (As an aside, the Court applied de novo review to the denial of counsel claim).

In United States v.Stafford, the Sixth Circuit upheld a determination that the defendant was both competent to stand trial and to represent himself. During the hearing to determine competency to stand trial, counsel represented Stafford. But at a subsequent hearing to further inquire into Stafford’s competency to represent himself, the district court noted that standby counsel was “not required to speak” (though it should be noted that standby counsel did speak and opined that Stafford was competent to represent himself). The appellate court emphasized the extensive record built by the district court in reaching its determination and the district court’s superior position to make determinations regarding competency.

These cases demonstrate the avenues and necessity for zealous advocacy even when a  
defendant seeks to proceed pro se.

The cases cited above are United States v. Martin, 11-6544 (6th Cir. April 15, 2015), and United States v. Stafford, 13-4188 (6th Cir. April 10, 2015).   

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