Friday, April 11, 2003
Capital Defendant Must Be Allowed to Represent Self—S.C.
Three Justices Urge U.S. Supreme Court to Reconsider 1975 Faretta Ruling
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A South Los Angeles gang member who confessed to killing a Korean immigrant in the course of robbing the victim’s Hawthorne liquor store is entitled to a new trial because he was improperly denied the right to represent himself, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown, in a unanimous decision, said the court had no alternative but to reverse Omar Dent III’s conviction and death sentence “under compulsion of Faretta v. California (1975) 422 U.S. 806.”
While all seven justices signed Brown’s opinion for the court, Brown and Justices Ming Chin and Marvin Baxter joined in a separate concurrence that urged the nation’s highest court to reconsider whether judges should be required to allow defendants in capital cases to represent themselves.
Granting a second trial to Dent, who faced overwhelming evidence against him, “is hard to explain in any rational matter,” Chin wrote for the three. His defense lawyers did at least as good a job for him at trial as he could have done himself, Chin argued, yet he now gets a new trial in which he may choose to be represented by counsel.
Dent was convicted of robbing and killing Byung Kim, fleeing in his van and shooting a retired police officer in August 1988. The defendant, who was identified as a member of the Eight-Trey Crips gang, also was convicted in 1983 of involuntary manslaughter and was on parole—he reportedly was recommitted twice for parole violations after serving his original term—when he killed Kim.
The earlier conviction resulted from the shooting death of a patron at a takeout chicken eatery. Investigators said Dent apparently tried to rob the victim, and charged him with first degree murder, but prosecutors said they agreed to a manslaughter plea for fear their witnesses would be too afraid to testify.
In the liquor store case, Dent was assigned Halvor Miller and Charles Maple as his defense lawyers, and after several continuances the case was set for trial on March 6, 1991 before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shook. But Miller was in another murder trial, so Shook agreed, on March 5, that Maple could try the case alone if the defendant agreed.
The next day, however, Maple—who said he misunderstood what time he was supposed to be present—was more than an hour late.
The judge, recounting a history of continuances and failures to appear, relieved the two lawyers, and told Dent that it was “clear and apparent to this court that they are just simply too busy to pay attention to your case and to give your case the attention that it deserves.”
“You must be represented by attorneys that are senior trial attorneys. And you have got to have people here to represent you. You cannot represent yourself in this matter. So that’s what I want to do and those are the reasons that I am doing it.”
Maple, after speaking to Dent, objected. The attorney said that Dent wanted him to proceed, and that if he could not have Maple as his lawyer, “the alternative he proposes to the court is that he proceed in pro. per.”
“I am not going to let him proceed pro. per....Not in a death penalty murder trial.”
The judge also told Dent:
“You must be represented by attorneys that are senior trial attorneys. And you have got to have people here to represent you. You cannot represent yourself in this matter.”
Judge Urges Silence
Dent told the judge he would rather represent himself than be saddled with two new attorneys who were unfamiliar with his case, but Shook rebuffed him and suggested he not speak further, lest he incriminate himself.
Brown, writing for the high court, said the judge got it wrong. Whether the defendant is facing the death penalty or not has no bearing on his rights under Faretta, she said.
She rejected the contention by Deputy Attorney General Russell Lehmann that since Dent did not object to the subsequent appointment of new counsel, he did not unequivocally invoke the right to self-representation, but merely expressed “fleeting” annoyance at the fact he was not being given the counsel of his choice.
“While the trial judge was concerned defendant might make an incriminating statement, the court’s instruction not to speak ... may well have convinced defendant the self-representation option was simply unavailable, and making the request again would be futile,” Brown said.
Lehmann told the MetNews yesterday he was uncertain whether his office would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case is People v. Dent, 03 S.O.S. 1827.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company