Indiana v. Edwards

554 U.S. 164

Case Year: 2008

Case Ruling: 7-2, Vacated and Remanded

Opinion Justice: Breyer

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Alito, Ginsburg, Kennedy, Roberts, Souter, Stevens


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Scalia

Joiner(s): Thomas

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


A store security officer caught Ahmad Edwards trying to steal a pair of shoes from a department store in July 1999. Edwards drew a gun, shot at the security guard, and wounded a bystander before he was caught and arrested. Indiana charged Edwards with attempted murder, battery with a deadly weapon, criminal recklessness, and theft. Between 2000 and 2005 Edwards underwent a series of evaluations and competency hearings to determine whether his mental illness prevented him from assisting his attorneys to mount a defense. In June 2005 Edwards's hospital finally reported that he was competent to stand trial. Before the trial, Edwards asked to represent himself. The court denied his request and after being represented by counsel, a jury convicted Edwards of criminal recklessness and theft. After a second trial, and a second denied request to represent himself, Edwards was also convicted of attempted murder and battery charges.

Edwards appealed the decision arguing that the court had deprived him of his right of self-representation when it used earlier schizophrenia diagnoses to deny his requests to serve as his own counsel. Both the appellate court and Indiana Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Edwards before the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the Constitution required the state court to allow Edwards to represent himself.



The Court's foundational "self-representation" case, Faretta [ v. California, 1975], held that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments include a "constitutional right to proceed without counsel when" a criminal defendant "voluntarily and intelligently elects to do so." . . .

Faretta does not answer the question before us both because it did not consider the problem of mental competency, and because Faretta itself and later cases have made clear that the right of self-representation is not absolute. The question here concerns a mental-illness-related limitation on the scope of the self-representation right. . . .

. . . We ask whether the Constitution permits a State to limit that defendant's self-representation right by insisting upon representation by counsel at trial--on the ground that the defendant lacks the mental capacity to conduct his trial defense unless represented.

Several considerations taken together lead us to conclude that the answer to this question is yes. . . . [T]he Court's "mental competency" cases set forth a standard that focuses directly upon a defendant's "present ability to consult with his lawyer," a "capacity . . . to consult with counsel," and an ability "to assist [counsel] in preparing his defense." These standards assume representation by counsel and emphasize the importance of counsel. They thus suggest (though do not hold) that an instance in which a defendant who would choose to forgo counsel at trial presents a very different set of circumstances, which in our view, calls for a different standard. . . .

. . . [T]he nature of the problem before us cautions against the use of a single mental competency standard for deciding both (1) whether a defendant who is represented by counsel can proceed to trial and (2) whether a defendant who goes to trial must be permitted to represent himself. Mental illness itself is not a unitary concept. It varies in degree. It can vary over time. It interferes with an individual''s functioning at different times in different ways. . . .

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) tells us (without dispute) in its amicus brief filed in support of neither party that "[d]isorganized thinking, deficits in sustaining attention and concentration, impaired expressive abilities, anxiety, and other common symptoms of severe mental illnesses can impair the defendant's ability to play the significantly expanded role required for self-representation even if he can play the lesser role of represented defendant." Motions and other documents that the defendant prepared in this case suggest to a layperson the common sense of this general conclusion.

. . . [I]n our view, a right of self-representation at trial will not "affirm the dignity" of a defendant who lacks the mental capacity to conduct his defense without the assistance of counsel. To the contrary, given that defendant's uncertain mental state, the spectacle that could well result from his self-representation at trial is at least as likely to prove humiliating as ennobling. Moreover, insofar as the defendant's lack of capacity threatens an improper conviction or sentence, self-representation in that exceptional context undercuts the most basic of the Constitution's criminal law objectives, providing a fair trial. . . .

We consequently conclude that the Constitution permits judges to take realistic account of the particular defendant's mental capacities by asking whether a defendant who seeks to conduct his own defense at trial is mentally competent to do so. That is to say, the Constitution permits States to insist upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial . . . but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves. . . .

For these reasons, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Indiana is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

So ordered.


The Constitution guarantees a defendant who knowingly and voluntarily waives the right to counsel the right to proceed pro se at his trial. A mentally ill defendant who knowingly and voluntarily elects to proceed pro se instead of through counsel receives a fair trial that comports with the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court today concludes that a State may nonetheless strip a mentally ill defendant of the right to represent himself when that would be fairer. In my view the Constitution does not permit a State to substitute its own perception of fairness for the defendant's right to make his own case before the jury--a specific right long understood as essential to a fair trial.

Ahmad Edwards suffers from schizophrenia, an illness that has manifested itself in different ways over time, depending on how and whether Edwards was treated as well as on other factors that appear harder to identify. . . .

Edwards seems to have been treated with antipsychotic medication for the first time in 2004. He was found competent to stand trial the same year. The psychiatrist making the recommendation described Edwards' thought processes as "coherent" and wrote that he "communicate[d] very well," that his speech was "easy to understand," that he displayed "good communications skills, cooperative attitude, average intelligence, and good cognitive functioning," that he could "appraise the roles of the participants in the courtroom proceedings," and that he had the capacity to challenge prosecution witnesses realistically and to testify relevantly. . . . Exercising the right of self-representation requires waiving the right to counsel. A defendant may represent himself only when he " 'knowingly and intelligently' " waives the lawyer's assistance that is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. He must "be made aware of the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation," and the record must "establish that 'he knows what he is doing and his choice is made with eyes open.'" This limitation may be relevant to many mentally ill defendants, but there is no dispute that Edwards was not one of them. Edwards was warned extensively of the risks of proceeding pro se. The trial judge found that Edwards had "knowingly and voluntarily" waived his right to counsel at his first trial, and at his second trial the judge denied him the right to represent himself only by "carv[ing] out" a new "exception" to the right beyond the standard of knowing and voluntary waiver.

When a defendant appreciates the risks of forgoing counsel and chooses to do so voluntarily, the Constitution protects his ability to present his own defense even when that harms his case. In fact waiving counsel "usually" does so. . . .

Until today, the right of self-representation has been accorded the same respect as other constitutional guarantees. The only circumstance in which we have permitted the State to deprive a defendant of this trial right is the one under which we have allowed the State to deny other such rights: when it is necessary to enable the trial to proceed in an orderly fashion. . . . This ground for terminating self-representation is unavailable here, however, because Edwards was not even allowed to begin to represent himself, and because he was respectful and compliant and did not provide a basis to conclude a trial could not have gone forward had he been allowed to press his own claims. . . .

While the Sixth Amendment makes no mention of the right to forgo counsel, it provides the defendant, and not his lawyer, the right to call witnesses in his defense and to confront witnesses against him, and counsel is permitted to assist in " hisdefence" (emphasis added). Our trial system, however, allows the attorney representing a defendant "full authority to manage the conduct of the trial"--an authority without which "[t]he adversary process could not function effectively." We have held that "the client must accept the consequences of the lawyer's decision to forgo cross-examination, to decide not to put certain witnesses on the stand, or to decide not to disclose the identity of certain witnesses in advance of trial." Thus, in order for the defendant's right to call his own witnesses, to cross-examine witnesses, and to put on a defense to be anything more than "a tenuous and unacceptable legal fiction," a defendant must have consented to the representation of counsel. Otherwise, "the defense presented is not the defense guaranteed him by the Constitution, for in a very real sense, it is not his defense."

The facts of this case illustrate this point with the utmost clarity. Edwards wished to take a self-defense case to the jury. His counsel preferred a defense that focused on lack of intent. Having been denied the right to conduct his own defense, Edwards was convicted without having had the opportunity to present to the jury the grounds he believed supported his innocence. I do not doubt that he likely would have been convicted anyway. But to hold that a defendant may be deprived of the right to make legal arguments for acquittal simply because a state-selected agent has made different arguments on his behalf is, as Justice Frankfurter wrote in Adams [ v. United States, 1942], to "imprison a man in his privileges and call it the Constitution." In singling out mentally ill defendants for this treatment, the Court's opinion does not even have the questionable virtue of being politically correct. At a time when all society is trying to mainstream the mentally impaired, the Court permits them to be deprived of a basic constitutional right--for their own good.

Today's holding is extraordinarily vague. The Court does not accept Indiana's position that self-representation can be denied " 'where the defendant cannot communicate coherently with the court or a jury.' " It does not even hold that Edwards was properly denied his right to represent himself. It holds only that lack of mental competence can under some circumstances form a basis for denying the right to proceed pro se. We will presumably give some meaning to this holding in the future, but the indeterminacy makes a bad holding worse. Once the right of self-representation for the mentally ill is a sometime thing, trial judges will have every incentive to make their lives easier--to avoid the painful necessity of deciphering occasional pleadings of the sort contained in the Appendix to today's opinion--by appointing knowledgeable and literate counsel. Because I think a defendant who is competent to stand trial, and who is capable of knowing and voluntary waiver of assistance of counsel, has a constitutional right to conduct his own defense, I respectfully dissent.