Thursday, January 3, 2008
Court Reverses Conviction for Denial of Faretta Waiver Withdrawal
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge violated a defendant’s constitutional right to counsel and committed per se reversible error by not allowing him to withdraw his self-representation request on the first day of trial, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Seven held that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney deprived Ringo Lawrence of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel when Mooney waited until the end of the first day of trial to deny Lawrence’s request to withdraw his waiver, and that there was no need to determine whether Lawrence was actually prejudiced.
Writing for the court, Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss said:
“[D]eprivation of counsel at a critical stage of a criminal trial is federal constitutional error that affects the framework within which the trial proceeds, ‘with consequences that are necessarily unquantifiable and indeterminate.’”
Lawrence, who was charged with one count of selling, transporting or offering to sell a controlled substance, and one count of possession of cocaine base for sale, had asserted his Sixth Amendment right to represent himself under Faretta v. California (1975) 422 U.S. 806 in a proceeding before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David S. Wesley, rather than agree to a two-week trial continuance requested by his defense counsel due to a scheduling conflict. Lawrence’s request arose after commencement of his trial had already been continued for four weeks.
Wesley required Lawrence to complete an advisement and waiver of right to counsel form to ensure he understood the dangers and consequences of representing himself, and advised him that he would receive no special privileges. Although the form cautioned that his right to have counsel reappointed might be limited, it did not advise that the right would be completely abrogated, Perluss noted.
Lawrence initialed the form in most of the required locations, including a box acknowledging that he understood his constitutional right to an attorney and the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation. When Lawrence affirmed to Wesley again that he wished to represent himself, Wesley accepted the waiver.
He declined Wesley’s offer of a two-week continuance to prepare himself for trial, so Wesley transferred the case to Mooney for trial, which commenced later that day against Lawrence and a co-defendant.
After a half-day of jury selection, Lawrence thought better of his decision and asked that counsel be appointed to represent him at trial.
Mooney denied Lawrence’s request, noting that Lawrence had been advised of his rights and that Lawrence had voluntarily filled out the waiver form. He also admonished Lawrence not to bother his co-defendant’s counsel, who had been answering Lawrence’s questions as a courtesy.
The court adjourned the proceedings for the weekend after the conclusion of voir dire, and the next Monday Lawrence attempted again to withdraw his waiver before the jury was brought into the courtroom.
However, Mooney declined to address the request until the next break. He finally addressed the request at the close of the day’s proceedings, after opening statements had been given and the prosecution’s first witness had begun to testify, and denied it, citing the waiver form, the selection of the jury, the effect of a delay on Lawrence’s co-defendant, and the fact that Lawrence’s previous attorney was still unavailable.
The jury found Lawrence guilty on both counts, and sentenced him to a term of four years in prison, with a three-year enhancement for a prior drug conviction.
On appeal, Lawrence contended that his waiver had not been knowing and voluntary, and that the trial court had erred when it refused to allow him to withdraw his waiver and reassert his right to counsel.
Perluss rejected Lawrence’s first contention, but agreed with the second.
Right Not Absolute
Writing that Lawrence did not have an absolute right to withdraw his waiver and reassert the right to counsel, he noted that there was no evidence that Lawrence was attempting to manipulate the right to counsel for an improper purpose, and said that the trial judge had abused his discretion in denying Lawrence’s request because it would not have resulted in any disruptive delay or prejudice.
Turning to the effect of the error, Perluss said that it required reversal because it affected the framework of the entire trial that followed, and he remanded the matter for a new trial.
“The core of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is not that it commands a trial be fair,” he said, “but that ‘a particular guarantee of fairness be provided’—representation by counsel. If a deprivation of counsel was erroneous, that right has been violated. ‘No additional showing of prejudice is required to make the violation “complete.”
Perluss was joined in his opinion by Justices Fred Woods and Laurie D. Zelon.
The case is People v. Lawrence, 08 S.O.S. 5.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company