Indiana v. Edwards

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If a state trial court finds a defendant competent to stand trial, is it entitled to find the defendant not competent to represent himself at trial?

Oral argument: 
March 26, 2008
Court below: 

In 1999, Ahmad Edwards stole a pair of shoes from an Indiana department store and then shot at the store security guard who chased after him, wounding the guard and a passer-by. The State of Indiana charged Edwards with theft, criminal recklessness, battery, and attempted murder. In 2004, an Indiana trial court declared Edwards competent to stand trial but later denied Edwards' request to serve as his own lawyer. The judge said that Edwards, a diagnosed schizophrenic, was not competent to represent himself. Edwards then went to trial with counsel, a jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to thirty years in prison. Edwards appealed, arguing that the court deprived him of his Sixth Amendment right to represent himself at trial. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with Edwards and called for a new trial. The appeals court held that once the trial court had found Edwards competent to stand trial, under United States Supreme Court precedent, the court could not impose a higher competency standard to determine whether he could act as his own lawyer. The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court's decision. The Supreme Court will consider whether states may impose greater competency standards on defendants who wish to represent themselves than on ordinary defendants.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

May states adopt a higher standard for measuring competency to represent oneself at trial than for measuring competency to stand trial?


The following facts are from the Indiana Supreme Court decision, Edwards v. State, 866 N.E.2d 252 (2007); the Indiana Court of Appeals decision, Edwards v. State, 854 N.E.2d 42 (2006); and the parties' Joint Appendix:

On July 12, 1999, Ahmad Edwards took a pair of sneakers from the Parisian Department Store in downtown Indianapolis and left the store without paying for them. The store's loss prevention officer followed Edwards onto the street, where he grabbed Edwards to keep him from fleeing. Edwards then pulled a gun and fired, grazing the employee with a bullet and injuring a passer-by. Then Edwards fled. An FBI special agent who witnessed the aftermath of the shooting chased Edwards into a nearby parking garage and apprehended him. On July 15, 1999, the State of Indiana filed charges against Edwards in Marion County Superior Court. The state charged Edwards with attempted murder, battery with a deadly weapon, criminal recklessness, and theft. On December 7, 1999, Edwards filed a combined notice of insanity defense and petition to determine competence to stand trial.

Both Edwards's own psychiatrist and a court-appointed psychiatrist diagnosed him with schizophrenia, and on August 16, 2000, the trial court found him incompetent to stand trial and committed him to a state hospital for treatment. A year later, the court declared Edwards competent, but in 2003, he was found incompetent again and was returned to the state hospital. In 2004, the court once again found Edwards competent to stand trial. Edwards petitioned the court for permission to represent himself but was denied. In June 2005, the case went to trial. An Indiana jury found Edwards guilty of criminal recklessness and theft but could not reach a verdict on attempted murder and battery. A second trial was scheduled on the two remaining charges, and Edwards again petitioned the court to represent himself, or to proceed pro se. The court initially granted the petition, but later reconsidered.

On December 19, 2005, the first day of Edwards' second trial, the court again denied Edwards' request to represent himself. The judge acknowledged that Edwards probably would meet Indiana Supreme Court requirements for self-representation, articulated in the case Sherwood v. State. Nevertheless, he found that Edwards-though competent to stand trial-was not competent to represent himself. The judge said he was denying the request in the interest of fairness, based on the psychiatric reports in the case file and on numerous examples of Edwards' communications with the court. As a result, Edwards went to trial represented by counsel. A jury convicted Edwards on both counts-attempted murder and battery-and he received a combined sentence of thirty years.

Edwards appealed. He argued the trial court had erred in not allowing him to represent himself, in failing to provide a speedy trial, and in its sentencing decisions. The Indiana Court of Appeals rejected the last two arguments, but it agreed that the trial court should have allowed Edwards to represent himself. The appeals court said two United States Supreme Court cases required this result. First, under Faretta v. California, a criminal defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to represent himself at trial. Second, Godinez v. Moran held that the standard of competence for self-representation was the same as that for standing trial. Therefore, once the trial court found Edwards competent to stand trial, it could not require him to meet a higher standard in order to represent himself. The appeals court acknowledged that a court could deny a defendant the right to represent himself if the defendant's waiver of his right to counsel was not knowing and voluntary, but said it found no indication that the trial court denied Edwards' request for this reason. The appeals court, therefore, reversed the trial court's decision and remanded the case for a new trial. The state appealed. The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court decision. The state then petitioned the United States Supreme Court to review the decision. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on December 7, 2007.


The State of Indiana and the five amici in this case agree that trial courts should be able to apply a higher standard for determining a defendant's competence to represent himself than for judging competency to stand trial. Edwards disputes the need for and the constitutionality of such a higher standard.

A New Standard for Self-Representation Competence?

Indiana's brief to the United States Supreme Court proposes a standard for pro se representation that considers whether the defendant in a criminal trial has a minimal ability to communicate to the court and jury. Indiana argues that such ability is necessary to subject the government's case to meaningful adversarial testing, which is essential to a fair trial. Indiana contends that allowing the higher competency standard will protect the defendant's interest in a fair trial, the integrity of the legal system, and the public's interest in just verdicts.

In Edwards' case, Indiana argues, the trial court properly denied Edwards' request to represent himself because Edwards lacked a minimal ability to communicate with the court and jury. Representing oneself at trial requires the ability to tell one's side of the story through opening and closing arguments and examination of witnesses. When a defendant cannot perform these basic functions, Indiana argues, he effectively waives his right to a fair trial. According to Indiana, Edwards lacked this minimal capacity. Indiana notes that Edwards' private doctor described serious, intractable focus and memory problems, and Edwards' correspondence with the court exhibited confusion and an inability to present cogent thoughts.

Edwards argues in his response brief that Faretta specifically rejected basing the Sixth Amendment right of self-representation on a defendant's effectiveness in presenting his case.He says the court chose, with its eyes open, to allow defendants to represent themselves as long as they make this choice with their eyes open (i.e., knowingly and voluntarily). at 24. Edwards contends that Indiana's position allows courts to substitute their preferences-and prejudices-for the defendant's constitutionally recognized right. Finally, Edwards says the Supreme Court has already provided adequate protections for the integrity of the judicial process through less restrictive qualifications of the Faretta right (e.g., allowing courts to impose standby counsel).

In this case, Edwards argues that he was not nearly as impaired as Indiana says he was. For one thing, both Indiana's portrayal and the trial court's denial of Edwards's request to proceed pro se were skewed by reliance on communications that occurred before Edwards had received any meaningful treatment or medication. Denying Edwards's request also deprived him of his chosen defense, since he and his counsel had disagreed on defense strategy. Finally, Edwards contends that regardless of the Supreme Court's view of Indiana's proposed new standard, the trial court did not rely on this criterion but applied only its own standardless discretion to deny Edwards's request.

Four of the five amicus briefs in the case suggest several new standards for evaluating the competence of defendants who wish to represent themselves at trial. The American Psychiatric Association ("APA"), like Indiana, argues that in order to safeguard the fairness of the judicial process, trial courts must acknowledge that defendant competency is not an "all or nothing" or unitary concept, as defendants may have a range of competencies. APA suggests that courts use the existing competency evaluation process to assess a defendant's ability to represent himself. It further recommends considering availability of standby counsel and treatment to restore a defendant's own competency when deciding whether to deny a defendant the right to self-representation.

The United States and the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation argue for letting courts deny a defendant the right to represent himself if appropriate analysis shows the exercise of the right would frustrate an important state interest. The United States emphasizes that it would leave specific standard-setting to the individual states. State standards would be subject to Supreme Court review.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers ("NACDL") argues in its brief that courts should consider self-representation issues when assessing a defendant's basic competency to stand trial. Thus, a defendant who is competent to stand trial with counsel but incompetent to represent himself should be judged competent if he has counsel and incompetent if he doesn't. NACDL concedes this could create concerns about defendants manipulating the system. NACDL's fallback position is to provide counsel whenever a court judges a defendant competent to go to trial and incompetent to represent himself.

The American Bar Association ("ABA") would have courts focus on whether the defendant's waiver of counsel was knowing and voluntary. The ABA indicates that states should be able to craft their own inquiries in this assessment, but provides model standards as guidelines.

Legal Rationales for Standards

Indiana and the amici have attempted to fit their proposed standards into the legal framework already established by the court. This includes, principally, Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 833-34 (1975), which first established the Sixth Amendment right to self-representation, and Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389, 398 (1993), which said the standard for competence to waive one's right to counsel was no higher than that for standing trial.

Indiana's argument concentrates on Faretta. It first says that allowing a higher standard for self-representation is not inconsistent with Faretta. But it argues that if the Court finds the new standard incompatible with Faretta, it should consider overturning that decision. Indiana says its new rule is compatible with Faretta, in part, because Faretta assumed the kind of competence Indiana's new rule would let courts require. In Faretta, for example, the Court had found the defendant to be "literate, competent, and understanding." Thus, the Court did not have to confront the question raised by Indiana in Edwards' case concerning the defendant's ability to communicate intelligibly.

In addition, Indiana notes that the Court has never held the Faretta right to be absolute, but has allowed balancing where the integrity of the system might be compromised by self-representation. Courts are permitted to impose standby counsel against a defendant's wishes and to withdraw permission for self-representation if the defendant is disruptive or does not follow court rules. The Court has also let trial courts limit the exercise of other, arguably similar, rights, such as the right to paid counsel of choice and waiver of conflict-free counsel, in the interest of providing a fair trial. Thus, limiting defendants' right to self-representation where fairness requires is simply another example of the balancing with which courts are already engaged.

Indiana's alternative argument is that the Court should overrule Faretta. Indiana notes that the Faretta right is not explicitly stated in the Sixth Amendment text. Instead, the right was inferred by the Court from the amendment's structure and historic context. The Court relied in large part on English common law views of self-representation. Indiana argues that the Court's conclusions concerning this history were incorrect or are now outmoded. First, Indiana disputes the Court's view of self-representation as a cherished common law right. It argues self-representation was the norm mainly because defendants had no right to counsel. In addition, Indiana says defendants faced a prohibition against testifying on their own behalf. Thus, representing oneself at trial was the only way to be heard. Indiana argues that the modern developments of the right to representation by counsel and a defendant's right to testify greatly diminished the need for self-representation.

Indiana also argues that support for Faretta has eroded. It notes that the Court has not extended the right to appeals and that it has allowed trial courts to appoint standby counsel against a defendant's wishes. Indiana further claims that opinions of individual justices have shown a weakening allegiance to the Faretta doctrine.

The amici present their own rationales for revising or clarifying the pro se competence standard. The APA and the United States, like Indiana, argue that Faretta is not absolute. ; APA also claims that Godinez is not controlling, because it concerned a guilty plea rather than self-representation. The United States argues that Godinez set a floor for competence to waive the right to counsel, but provide a ceiling for state standards.

NACDL focuses mainly on Godinez, which it says erred in conflating common law and modern standards for competence to stand trial. Godinez said self-representation was the norm at common law, and thus competency to stand trial was competency to represent oneself. NACDL notes, however, that this common law standard has been replaced by the standard the Supreme Court set in Dusky v. United States. The Dusky standard judges a defendant's competence specifically based upon his ability to consult with counsel. Godinez, therefore, puts courts in an odd position: They are to judge mentally ill or compromised pro se applicants by a standard that does not apply, in order to permit them to do something they may not be competent to do. NACDL calls for shifting such defendants conceptually into one or the other category by either declaring incompetent pro se applicants incompetent to stand trial or imposing a lawyer on a defendant who is competent only by Dusky standards.

CJLF makes two central points about Faretta. CJLF first argues that Faretta's right to self-representation is implicit, not stated, in the Constitution; therefore, the Court should apply it more narrowly and carefully than it would an explicitly stated right. For that reason, CJLF then says the Court should look at the state-federal court consensus that the Faretta court looked to in support of its decision and should define the right in accordance with that consensus view. CJLF's conclusion is that the state-federal consensus upon which the Faretta decision relied was that the right applied only in usual circumstances and would give way where concerns about fairness and other important interests rendered it problematic. CJLF's view supports for allowing state courts considerable discretion in assessing defendants with borderline mental competence.

The ABA chooses the broadest legal road in basing its distinction between competence to stand trial and competence to represent oneself at trial on the knowing and intelligent character of the waiver of counsel. This distinction is already recognized in Godinez, and thus sidesteps the Godinez equation of the two types of competencies. Nevertheless, ABA's rationale may simply pull the plain meaning of its phrase too far afield-and away from the question the Court itself prepared.


Severely mentally ill defendants present several challenges for the criminal justice system. These challenges reflect tensions between the state's interest in bringing a case to trial and achieving justice; respect for the autonomy of the accused; and society's perception of the fairness and dignity of the legal process.

For a trial court, the first challenge in dealing with a mentally ill defendant is to ascertain whether the person may be tried at all. The United States Supreme Court has said that trying a defendant who lacks minimal competence to stand trial deprives him of his constitutional due process right to a fair trial. The Court's standard for competence to stand trial (established in Dusky v. United States) asks whether a defendant has a rational understanding of the proceedings against him and an ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of understanding.

Determining a defendant's competence to stand trial may require multiple examinations, hearings, treatment, and reassessments. As Ahmad Edwards' experience demonstrates, the process may take considerable time, and a single determination may not be conclusive. For example, Edwards was found competent in 2002, only to be found incompetent a year later, and then was declared competent again in 2004.

An additional challenge for the legal system arises when a mentally ill defendant wishes to waive his right to a lawyer. The Supreme Court has long required that such a waiver be voluntary, knowing, and intelligent. Nevertheless, in Godinez v. Moran, the Court specified that the level of competence a court must find to let a defendant waive his right to counsel was no higher than the level required for the defendant to stand trial.

A defendant's request to serve as his own lawyer, or to proceed "pro se", raises issues of defendant autonomy that are of Constitutional significance. In Faretta v. California, the Supreme Court held that a criminal defendant had a Sixth Amendment right to self-representation at trial. Faretta indicated that this right inheres in respect for the individual and the understanding that it is the defendant who must bear the consequences of his defense. Nevertheless, the Court has also held that the right to self-representation is not absolute and has limited its scope in Faretta and later cases. In Faretta, the Court said a defendant could forfeit the right by behaving disruptively or by proving unwilling or unable to follow court procedure. In Martinez v. Court of Appeal of California, the Court said the right does not apply to cases on appeal; and in McKaskle v. Wiggins, the Court said a trial court can require a defendant to use court-appointed "standby counsel" as long as the defendant controls presentation of the case.

Courts and commentators have viewed the Supreme Court's competency and Sixth Amendment rulings, in combination, to essentially require a trial court to approve self-representation once it has said a defendant can go to trial. Not all believe this result serves the goals of respect of and fairness to the defendant or promotes the integrity of the legal system.

The state amicus brief in this case, for example, argues that allowing defendants to proceed with self-representation creates an "insurmountable" mismatch between prosecution and the defense. This mismatch jeopardizes the defendant's right to a fair trial, undermines the dignity of the courtroom, and compromises the judge's neutrality by requiring her to take a more active role in managing the trial. The brief suggests that these problems were particularly acute when a defendant is mentally ill. The American Psychiatric Association's brief outlines several symptoms of serious mental illness that could threaten the reliability and fairness of a trial in which a mentally ill defendant represents himself. These include impaired focus, delusional thinking, inability to express ideas coherently, and severe anxiety. The APA suggests that the tension of a trial would likely exacerbate such symptoms.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation's brief cites the 1995 trial of murder defendant Scott Panetti as an illustration of the pro se imperative run amok. In Panetti's trial, a Texas court allowed the defendant -- a schizophrenic with a long history of psychiatric problems -- to represent himself once a hearing found him competent to stand trial. Panetti argued his case dressed in a cowboy outfit, included Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy on his witness list, and exhibited a demeanor his standby counsel called "scary" and "trance-like." He was found guilty and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court later reversed this sentence as cruel and unusual punishment. A second pro se case-mentioned in Indiana's brief-was Colin Ferguson's defense for a shooting spree on the Long Island Rail Road. Ferguson had been diagnosed as paranoid and delusional. In his opening argument, he said that there were ninety-three charges against him because the shooting occurred in 1993. He also claimed that the victims had conspired against him and that the Jewish Defense League planned to murder him in prison. Colin Ferguson's former counsel called Ferguson's trial "bizarre" and "an obscene spectacle." See Ronald L. Kuby and William M. Kunstler, "So Crazy He Thinks He Is Sane," 5 Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 19, 19 (1995). Mr. Ferguson received a life sentence without parole.

The State of Indiana says such examples argue for a scaling back of the right of self-representation, including perhaps overruling Faretta. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) suggests that the better question is whether a defendant who cannot represent himself is actually competent to stand trial without counsel. This view echoes that of Colin Ferguson's former counsel, who argued the trial court should have responded to the "spectacle" of Ferguson's trial by reconsidering its initial competence decision. Kunstler & Kuby at 19.

Edwards counters that giving trial courts the discretion to deny a competent defendant's request to represent himself would open the door to discrimination against the mentally ill.Such discretion could enable a court to deprive mentally ill defendants of their right to self-representation based solely on the court's discomfort with manifestations of the defendants' illness. Finally, the higher standard of competence Indiana proposes (requiring the ability to communicate effectively with the court) would not prevent many problems that occur in pro se cases, including those cited by the CJLF from the Colin Ferguson case.

An additional question is whether a defendant gains a practical advantage by proceeding pro se. In Faretta, the Supreme Court expressed its view that most defendants are better off with counsel. The Court underscored the point in Martinez, saying a pro se defense is usually a bad defense. Nevertheless, a recent article concerning research on pro se cases presents data suggesting that under some circumstances defendants who represent themselves fare better than those with counsel. This research indicates that in state cases, defendants who represented themselves were more likely to go to trial than defendants with counsel. Furthermore, taking into account both guilty pleas and convictions following a trial, researchers found that State pro se defendants were also less likely to be convicted of felony offenses. According to the article, dissatisfaction with the quality of court-appointed counsel was a principal reason defendants sought to represent themselves.


The Indiana judge who presided over Ahmad Edwards' trial found Edwards competent to stand trial after nearly six years of psychiatric evaluations, treatment, and competency hearings. The judge did not believe, however, that Edwards was competent to serve as his own lawyer in that trial, as Edwards had requested. This case asks the United States Supreme Court whether a trial court may permissibly draw that distinction. Allowing a trial court to bring a defendant to trial while simultaneously limiting his Sixth Amendment right of self-representation touches on sensitive issues of defendant autonomy and judicial fairness. Yet denying trial courts such discretion may prevent them from making crucial assessments and trial management decisions concerning mentally ill defendants. The amicus briefs submitted in this case unanimously argue for some trial court discretion in this area, but present various possible solutions for the Court's consideration. Edwards argues that allowing such discretion merely opens the door to discrimination. If the Court decides in favor of Indiana, it will also consider the issue in light of a number of its own precedents concerning the right to self-representation and competence standards.Written by:

Ellen Loeb

Molly Curren Rowles