Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Man Accused of Murdering Five Can Represent Self, Court Says
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal has granted an accused quintuple murderer’s request to represent himself at his trial, scheduled to begin Sept. 28 in Orange Superior Court.
In an unpublished decision Monday, Div. Three directed Orange Superior Court Judge Francisco P. Briseño to discharge Rodney Alcala’s appointed counsel and allow him to proceed as his own attorney on his third re-trial for the 1979 murder of Robin Samsoe, which has been joined with four counts of murder alleged to have occurred in Los Angeles County in 1977, 1978 and 1979.
Alcala had initially sought appointment of a new attorney, and after his request was denied, asked for pro se status on the Samsoe case and new counsel on the Los Angeles cases.
At a closed in camera proceeding in May, after Briseño rejected Alcala’s second request, Alcala remarked that “the only thing left then is pro se or pro per on both cases.” Although Alcala expressed disagreement with the judge’s ruling, he said, “I understand that if I go pro se, it’s for both Samsoe and the L.A. cases.”
He also filed a written “Faretta Waiver,” acknowledging the dangers of self-representation and his understanding of the charges against him.
When Alcala appeared in court on June 3, Briseño described Alcala as “bright” and “articulate,” and stated that he demonstrated an understanding in criminal procedure better than most pro pers.
But Briseño denied Alcala’s motion, finding that Alcala never made a “distinct unambiguous offer” to represent himself because Alcala had repeatedly qualified his requests by saying he “could not do the DNA type cases coming from Los Angeles” or “handle the criminal procedure” and previously made and withdrew three requests for self representation.
Writing for the appellate court, Presiding Justice David G. Sills explained that a trial court must grant a defendant’s request for self-representation if the request is unequivocal, and knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily made and asserted in a reasonable time before trial begins.
“Based on the record in this case, there are no facts that Alcala is not competent to waive his right to counsel and represent himself,” Sills said. “In fact, to the contrary, the trial court’s description of Alcala as bright, articulate, and very knowledgeable regarding the facts of the Samsoe case support a finding that Alcala has the mental capacity to waive his right to counsel and the ability to understand the charges and proceedings.”
Alcala’s statements that he did not feel qualified to represent himself in the Los Angeles murders or handle complex criminal procedure was “irrelevant” to the determination of his competency to waive his right to counsel, Sills added, emphasizing that a defendant’s ability to represent himself has no bearing on his ability to chose self-representation.
Sills also took issue with the trial court’s “totality of the facts and circumstances” approach, reaching back six years, to determine whether Alcala’s request was equivocal.
A defendant’s motion to represent himself is not based on an accumulation of evidence beyond the request, but is limited to the issue of timeliness, a current assessment of the defendant’s competence to waive his right to counsel, and an unequivocal request for self representation, Sills said.
Although the trial court could be “legitimately skeptical” of Alcala’s claim he would be ready to proceed to trial on Sept. 28, Sills noted that the trial court did not find Alcala’s request untimely or that Alcala’s previous requests for self-representation and the subsequent withdrawals of his requests were made in bad faith, or intended to disrupt, delay, or manipulate proceedings to his advantage.
As the trial court had also warned Alcala about the danger and disadvantages of representing himself in a capital case, both orally and in writing, but he still expressed a desire to represent himself, Sills concluded that the record did not support a denial of Alcala’s request for self-representation.
Justices Richard D. Fybel and Raymond J. Ikola joined Sills in his decision.
Orange County Deputy District Attorney James J. Mulgrew and Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Gina T. Satriano represented the state on appeal, while Richard Schwartzberg and George Peters represented Alcala.
The case is Alcala v. Superior Court (People), G042393.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company