Justices Weigh Definitions of Competency The Supreme Court heard arguments today on whether a defendant who is competent to stand trial must be considered competent to represent himself. The justices seemed doubtful that the two types of competency are the same.
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Justices Weigh Definitions of Competency

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Justices Weigh Definitions of Competency

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Justices Weigh Definitions of Competency

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: On the steps of the court, lawyer Mark Stancil, representing Edwards, said the Constitution protects the defendant's rights at trial, not the state's rights.

M: It's his decision - not the lawyers, not anybody else's - whether to plead guilty or whether to waive a jury trial right or whether to act as his own lawyer.

TOTENBERG: But Indiana Solicitor General Tom Fisher said the state has an interest in the public perception of a fair process.

M: The state has an interest in not conducting trials where it appears to be pursuing convictions against the defenseless.

TOTENBERG: Inside the courtroom, Fisher was up first, telling the justices that the state has an interest in preventing a trial from descending into a farce.

J: If the trial does start to descend into a farce, then you can jump in and stop his self-representation. Answer: The state shouldn't have to wait and risk the jury being tainted.

J: Finally today, it was Mark Stancil's turn to argue for the defendant. Once the state has judged the defendant mentally competent, he said, the state cannot second-guess the defendant's choice to represents himself any more than it could tell him he could not testify for himself because he had unsightly tattoos.

C: Do you argue that the state has no interest in ensuring a credible process?

J: Justice Breyer pointed to a psychiatric study showing a small subclass of people who are mentally competent to stand trial, but too delusional to communicate with a jury.

J: Lawyer Stancil went on to argue that if a defendant doesn't obey the judge and follow the rules of the courtroom, the judge can step in and appoint a lawyer.

J: You presume that if a defendant is told to stop, he'll do it. That doesn't happen. It's two ships passing in the night or more likely five or six ships.

J: We don't know if he was taking his medication when he wrote that.

J: But it's your position that as long as he's not disruptive, he can represent himself. It's his choice. Answer: Yes.

J: So if he's merely incoherent, he cannot be replaced by appointed counsel. Answer: It has to be so disorderly and so disruptive that the trial cannot go forward.

J: Based on your present assessment, was he competent to stand trial? Answer: It comes and goes. At the time of the trial, he was. He understood, for example, that the term voir dire refers to jury selection.

J: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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