Supreme Court Hears Schizophrenia Case Justices will decide whether a schizophrenic man should be allowed to represent himself in court. A successful mental health professional with schizophrenia weighs in.
NPR logo

Supreme Court Hears Schizophrenia Case

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Supreme Court Hears Schizophrenia Case

Supreme Court Hears Schizophrenia Case

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, big tobacco funds a big lung cancer study - are the results compromised?

CHADWICK: First, the question before the Supreme Court today, should mentally ill defendants be able to represent themselves in court. Nine years ago, Ahmad Edwards stole a pair of shoes from an Indianapolis department store. A security guard stopped him in the parking lot - Ahmad pulled out a gun and shot a bystander.

BRAND: He was found to be mentally ill, a schizophrenic, which can mean many things, hallucinations, mental loss, delusions. He was treated until he was judged competent to stand trial, and then he was found guilty. He appealed because the judge would not let him represent himself and that is the case at the Supreme Court today.

CHADWICK: Lyle Denniston was in the courtroom today, he's a long-time Supreme Court reporter, writing now for Lyle, welcome to Day to Day.

Mr. LYLE DENNISTON ( Hi, I'm happy to join you. Thank you.

CHADWICK: So, I think the basic thing here is, as I read about this case anyway, if you're competent to stand trial, how can you not be competent to defend yourself as this judge in Indiana had decided?

Mr. DENNISTON: The court was tempted to think that the standards should be the same. That is, if you have the mental capacity to work with your defense during the trial and get a fair trial out of it, you probably ought to be able to have the chance to defend yourself as a defense lawyer doing it on your own in essence if you have only the same level of competence.

The problem seemed to be that the court, one - thought it would have difficulty writing a two-level standard. In other words, how would you require a greater level of mental competency in order to represent yourself than in order to be tried in the first place? And so, the second concern was that, all right, suppose we don't put in a higher standard to represent yourself?

We all know, as in the real world, that there's going to be problems, that there's going to be defendants who are going to really try to turn the trial into a farce. So we're inclined - I thought the court was indicating - we're inclined to give the judge considerably greater discretion either to stop the trial altogether and bring in a real lawyer to assist in the defense, rather than at the outset, trying to draw two different standards for competency.

CHADWICK: You know, even a defendant with complete mental faculties intact is advised not to represent themselves. Why did, in this case, why did Mr. Edwards lawyers argue that he should be able to go ahead?

Mr. DENNISTON: They take the position that the constitutional right of defense is a defense that belongs to the individual. As his lawyer put it today, the state is not allowed to cross the courtroom and decide what is best for the defense. So they take a quite literal view of the nature of the right of self-defense.

To a degree, Alex, I think they're being somewhat heroic about it because they have to know that in some cases, self-defense would not be a very competent defense. But they apparently have advised Mr. Edwards and take the view themselves, his counsel do, that the right of self-representation is such a precious right, that you don't want to compromise it by layering around it a good deal of limiting standards. In other words, hoops that you would have to jump through in order to affect, what they regard as a fundamental right.

CHADWICK: The ruling on this will come out in, I guess a few more months. Lyle Denniston is a reporter for, covering the argument before the Supreme Court today. Lyle, thank you so much.

Mr. DENNISTON: Glad to be with you.

BRAND: And joining us is doctor Fred Frese. He's an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Northeastern Ohio University's College of Medicine. He himself was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia more than 40 years ago. Dr. Frese, welcome to the program.

Dr. FREDERICK FRESE (Psychology and Psychiatry Northeastern, Ohio University's College of Medicine): Thank you very much.

BRAND: Well, you're familiar with this case before the Supreme Court. And can you imagine yourself actually, sitting in one of those nine chairs as a justice and thinking, well, what should I do here? What would you do?

Dr. FRESE: Well, I can imagine myself sitting on one of the chairs of the justice, but also, I can imagine as the person who's being accused and wants to represent himself here. When one goes into the psychotic stage, almost by definition you are not in contact with reality. By definition, a delusion - if you knew it was a delusion, it wouldn't be a delusion. So you don't know that you're not in contact with reality. So I can pretty much identify with somebody who would want to defend themselves, base their arguments on something that often sounds ridiculous.

But nonetheless, I think the comments with regard to the fundamental right of an individual, even if that individual is in psychosis, if they have been competent enough to stand that trial, does that also mean that they are competent enough to defend themselves? I think it's a very good question

BRAND: What do you think about what Lyle Denniston was saying the justices appeared to be leaning toward? And that is, not creating a dual system, but in allowing judges to have more latitude in deciding whether or not someone is competent to stand trial and represent himself.

Dr. FRESE: That approach appeals to me, even though rationally you could say, well the person has these rights. The fact is the person is disabled with this condition. And is really not humane to allow them to go defending themselves when they're totally incapable of doing so.

BRAND: I guess on the other hand, though, there's been a long history of the state saying what mentally ill people need and making decisions for them, often against their will. And I imagine that people with mental illness are quite sensitive to that and naturally resist that.

Dr. FRESE: You are absolutely correct that there are people, who are mentally ill, who don't want any kind of intervention against their will in regard to anything. It's a balance, and I'm glad the Supreme Court is addressing this, quite frankly.

BRAND: And I suppose there are varying levels of schizophrenia.

Dr. FRESE: Very good point. Very good - but not only varying the levels from individual to individual, there are also varying levels from time to time. For most of us, it is an episodic disorder. Most of us respond to some degree to these medications, but not all of us. So all that needs to be taken into consideration, particularly for those of us who are much more disabled with this disorder than I happened to be. Although I have been hospitalized 10 times, mostly involuntarily, so I have been in that state fairly frequently when I was younger.

BRAND: So when you were hospitalized involuntarily, did you think that everyone was against you? That you knew what you were doing?

Dr. FRESE: The time I was involuntarily hospitalized, I was out in the street giving away my money proclaiming truth and justice for everyone. You sort of lose common sense because you're - you get some great principle you're subscribing to. It's the way I describe it to people.

BRAND: Thank you very much.

Dr. FRESE: OK, I hope this was of help.

BRAND: That's Dr. Fred Frese. He's an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Northeastern Ohio University's College of Medicine, also diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.