Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Denial of self-representation requires new trial

Korey Kaul won in State v. Kendall Brown, No. 103,425 (Kan. App. Aug. 19, 2011)(unpublished), obtaining a new trial in a Saline County rape prosecution. Mr. Brown had filed four letters with the trial court indicating his desire to represent himself at trial. The district court held that, due to a limited educational background and history of mental illness, Mr. Brown could not knowingly and voluntarily waive his right to counsel and therefore denied his request. On appeal, the state did not argue in support of that finding, but argued that Mr. Brown's requests were equivocal. The COA rejected both claims:


Because the right of self-representation does not hinge upon the ultimate outcome of the criminal trial, the fact that [an attorney] was a highly trained criminal defense attorney who probably would have provided Brown with a better defense than Brown was capable of providing for himself is irrelvant. Similarly, a criminal defendant's level of education is relevant only to the extent that he or she is literate and capable of understanding the dangers and potential consequences or proceeding pro se. Clearly, the amount of training or legal sophistication, alone, does not enable a court to force counsel upon an unwilling criminal defendant.
Next, the COA considered whether the record would support a finding that Mr. Brown was incompetent to represent himself. The COA reviewed the mental health evaluation that included in the record on appeal:


Nothing in this evaluation supports the court's finding that Brown was mentally incompetent to handle his own defense.


Moreover, Brown's responses to the trial court's inquiries at the hearing were appropriate and cogent. Brown recognized that his understanding of the procedural law was inferior to his appointed counsel's knowledge but maintained that he wished to handle his own defense. While Brown's pro se motions and letters to the court demonstrate a lack of formal education, they also show his ability to grasp the factual and legal issues in the case. Brown indicated that he understood the potential pentalites he faced and the potential pitfalls attending self-representation.

As a result, the COA held that the district court violated Mr. Brown's right to represent himself, which is structrual error requiring a new trial.

[Update: Mr. Brown intially filed a PR from that part of the case he lost, but ultimately voluntarily dismissed that PR and the mandate issued on October 17, 2011.]

[Update: here is a Salina Journal report that Mr. Brown entered into a plea agreement for a reduced sentence on remand.]

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