People v. Alias Stone


AD1 order dated September 27, 2012, affirming judgment of conviction. Decision below: 98 AD3d 910, 951 NYS2d 145. Lippman, Ch. J., granted leave February 21, 2013.
ISSUE PRESENTED: Whether defendant was improperly allowed to proceed pro se at trial, as he was mentally ill. (Assigned counsel: Richard M. Greenberg, Office of the Appellate Defender, 11 Park Place, Suite 1601, NYC 10007.)

Issues before the Court: Whether a trial court has an obligation to inquire into the mental capacity of a defendant to represent himself before granting an application to proceed pro se.


Held: In Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164, 174 (2008), the United States Supreme Court held that a trial court can deny a defendant the right to proceed pro se where the defendant suffers from a severe mental illness and, while competent to stand trial, “lacks the mental capacity to conduct his trial defense unless represented.” In a unanimous opinion written by Judge Read, the Court found that a “defendant’s competency may be taken into account” when assessing defendant’s request to proceed pro se, but the court “need not conduct a formal ‘competency’ hearing prior to adjudicating a self-representation request.” Under the circumstances before the court, Judge Read concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to find that defendant was competent to stand trial, but not competent waive counsel and proceed pro se. The Court found that the trial court “had no reason to believe that defendant suffered from mental illness severe enough to impact his ability to waive counsel and proceed pro se.”


CAL Observes: While the Court was rightly concerned with balancing the defendant’s right to self-representation against the possibility that he may not have been competent to represent himself, and may have been correct that defendant here was competent to make that choice, the Court’s rule seems shortsighted: by not imposing an obligation on the trial court at the outset to assess defendant’s fitness, before allowing him to proceed pro se, the Court allows for the possibility that subsequent events will show that a pro se defendant is not competent to proceed. A competence inquiry accompanying every Faretta inquiry could rule out this possibility at the outset.