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5.2: Chapter 37 - Self-Representation and More on Ineffective Assistance

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    Chapter 37

    Self-Representation and More on Ineffective Assistance

    In this chapter we continue our study of what constitutes effective (and ineffective) assistance of counsel in criminal cases. We also explore when a criminal defendant has the right to represent herself, even if a judge believes that she would be better served by a lawyer.

    We begin with the Court’s application of Strickland v. Washington (Chapter 36) to cases in which no trial occurs because the defendant enters a plea of guilty.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Missouri v. Galin E. Frye

    Decided March 21, 2012 – 566 U.S. 134

    Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

    The Sixth Amendment, applicable to the States by the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that the accused shall have the assistance of counsel in all criminal prosecutions. The right to counsel is the right to effective assistance of counsel. This case arises in the context of claimed ineffective assistance that led to the lapse of a prosecution offer of a plea bargain, a proposal that offered terms more lenient than the terms of the guilty plea entered later. The initial question is whether the constitutional right to counsel extends to the negotiation and consideration of plea offers that lapse or are rejected. If there is a right to effective assistance with respect to those offers, a further question is what a defendant must demonstrate in order to show that prejudice resulted from counsel’s deficient performance.


    In August 2007, respondent Galin Frye was charged with driving with a revoked license. Frye had been convicted for that offense on three other occasions, so the State of Missouri charged him with a class D felony, which carries a maximum term of imprisonment of four years.

    On November 15, the prosecutor sent a letter to Frye’s counsel offering a choice of two plea bargains. The prosecutor first offered to recommend a 3-year sentence if there was a guilty plea to the felony charge, without a recommendation regarding probation but with a recommendation that Frye serve 10 days in jail as so-called “shock” time. The second offer was to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor and, if Frye pleaded guilty to it, to recommend a 90-day sentence. The misdemeanor charge of driving with a revoked license carries a maximum term of imprisonment of one year. The letter stated both offers would expire on December 28. Frye’s attorney did not advise Frye that the offers had been made. The offers expired.

    Frye’s preliminary hearing was scheduled for January 4, 2008. On December 30, 2007, less than a week before the hearing, Frye was again arrested for driving with a revoked license. At the January 4 hearing, Frye waived his right to a preliminary hearing on the charge arising from the August 2007 arrest. He pleaded not guilty at a subsequent arraignment but then changed his plea to guilty. There was no underlying plea agreement. The state trial court accepted Frye’s guilty plea. The prosecutor recommended a 3-year sentence, made no recommendation regarding probation, and requested 10 days shock time in jail. The trial judge sentenced Frye to three years in prison.

    Frye filed for postconviction relief in state court. He alleged his counsel’s failure to inform him of the prosecution’s plea offer denied him the effective assistance of counsel. At an evidentiary hearing, Frye testified he would have entered a guilty plea to the misdemeanor had he known about the offer.

    A state court denied the postconviction motion, but the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed. To implement a remedy for the violation, the court deemed Frye’s guilty plea withdrawn and remanded to allow Frye either to insist on a trial or to plead guilty to any offense the prosecutor deemed it appropriate to charge. This Court granted certiorari.


    It is well settled that the right to the effective assistance of counsel applies to certain steps before trial. The “Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to have counsel present at all ‘critical’ stages of the criminal proceedings.” Critical stages include arraignments, postindictment interrogations, postindictment lineups, and the entry of a guilty plea.

    With respect to the right to effective counsel in plea negotiations, a proper beginning point is to discuss two cases from this Court considering the role of counsel in advising a client about a plea offer and an ensuing guilty plea: Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52 (1985) and Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010).

    Hill established that claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in the plea bargain context are governed by the two-part test set forth in Strickland. As noted above, in Frye’s case, the Missouri Court of Appeals, applying the two part test of Strickland, determined first that defense counsel had been ineffective and second that there was resulting prejudice.

    In Hill, the decision turned on the second part of the Strickland test. There, a defendant who had entered a guilty plea claimed his counsel had misinformed him of the amount of time he would have to serve before he became eligible for parole. But the defendant had not alleged that, even if adequate advice and assistance had been given, he would have elected to plead not guilty and proceed to trial. Thus, the Court found that no prejudice from the inadequate advice had been shown or alleged.

    In Padilla, the Court again discussed the duties of counsel in advising a client with respect to a plea offer that leads to a guilty plea. Padilla held that a guilty plea, based on a plea offer, should be set aside because counsel misinformed the defendant of the immigration consequences of the conviction. The Court made clear that “the negotiation of a plea bargain is a critical phase of litigation for purposes of the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel.” It also rejected the argument made by petitioner in this case that a knowing and voluntary plea supersedes errors by defense counsel.

    The State is correct to point out that Hill and Padilla concerned whether there was ineffective assistance leading to acceptance of a plea offer, a process involving a formal court appearance with the defendant and all counsel present. Before a guilty plea is entered the defendant’s understanding of the plea and its consequences can be established on the record. This affords the State substantial protection against later claims that the plea was the result of inadequate advice. At the plea entry proceedings the trial court and all counsel have the opportunity to establish on the record that the defendant understands the process that led to any offer, the advantages and disadvantages of accepting it, and the sentencing consequences or possibilities that will ensue once a conviction is entered based upon the plea. Hill and Padilla both illustrate that, nevertheless, there may be instances when claims of ineffective assistance can arise after the conviction is entered. Still, the State, and the trial court itself, have had a substantial opportunity to guard against this contingency by establishing at the plea entry proceeding that the defendant has been given proper advice or, if the advice received appears to have been inadequate, to remedy that deficiency before the plea is accepted and the conviction entered.

    When a plea offer has lapsed or been rejected, however, no formal court proceedings are involved. This underscores that the plea-bargaining process is often in flux, with no clear standards or timelines and with no judicial supervision of the discussions between prosecution and defense. Indeed, discussions between client and defense counsel are privileged. So the prosecution has little or no notice if something may be amiss and perhaps no capacity to intervene in any event. And, as noted, the State insists there is no right to receive a plea offer. For all these reasons, the State contends, it is unfair to subject it to the consequences of defense counsel’s inadequacies, especially when the opportunities for a full and fair trial, or, as here, for a later guilty plea albeit on less favorable terms, are preserved.

    The State’s contentions are neither illogical nor without some persuasive force, yet they do not suffice to overcome a simple reality. Ninety-seven percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas. The reality is that plea bargains have become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system that defense counsel have responsibilities in the plea bargain process, responsibilities that must be met to render the adequate assistance of counsel that the Sixth Amendment requires in the criminal process at critical stages. Because ours “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” it is insufficient simply to point to the guarantee of a fair trial as a backstop that inoculates any errors in the pretrial process. “To a large extent … horse trading [between prosecutor and defense counsel] determines who goes to jail and for how long. That is what plea bargaining is. It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.” In today’s criminal justice system, therefore, the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant.

    To note the prevalence of plea bargaining is not to criticize it. The potential to conserve valuable prosecutorial resources and for defendants to admit their crimes and receive more favorable terms at sentencing means that a plea agreement can benefit both parties. In order that these benefits can be realized, however, criminal defendants require effective counsel during plea negotiations. “Anything less … might deny a defendant ‘effective representation by counsel at the only stage when legal aid and advice would help him.’”


    Here the question is whether defense counsel has the duty to communicate the terms of a formal offer to accept a plea on terms and conditions that may result in a lesser sentence, a conviction on lesser charges, or both.

    This Court now holds that, as a general rule, defense counsel has the duty to communicate formal offers from the prosecution to accept a plea on terms and conditions that may be favorable to the accused. Any exceptions to that rule need not be explored here, for the offer was a formal one with a fixed expiration date. When defense counsel allowed the offer to expire without advising the defendant or allowing him to consider it, defense counsel did not render the effective assistance the Constitution requires.

    Though the standard for counsel’s performance is not determined solely by reference to codified standards of professional practice, these standards can be important guides. The American Bar Association recommends defense counsel “promptly communicate and explain to the defendant all plea offers made by the prosecuting attorney” and this standard has been adopted by numerous state and federal courts over the last 30 years. The standard for prompt communication and consultation is also set out in state bar professional standards for attorneys.

    The prosecution and the trial courts may adopt some measures to help ensure against late, frivolous, or fabricated claims after a later, less advantageous plea offer has been accepted or after a trial leading to conviction with resulting harsh consequences. First, the fact of a formal offer means that its terms and its processing can be documented so that what took place in the negotiation process becomes more clear if some later inquiry turns on the conduct of earlier pretrial negotiations. Second, States may elect to follow rules that all offers must be in writing, again to ensure against later misunderstandings or fabricated charges. Third, formal offers can be made part of the record at any subsequent plea proceeding or before a trial on the merits, all to ensure that a defendant has been fully advised before those further proceedings commence.

    Here defense counsel did not communicate the formal offers to the defendant. As a result of that deficient performance, the offers lapsed. Under Strickland, the question then becomes what, if any, prejudice resulted from the breach of duty.


    To show prejudice from ineffective assistance of counsel where a plea offer has lapsed or been rejected because of counsel’s deficient performance, defendants must demonstrate a reasonable probability they would have accepted the earlier plea offer had they been afforded effective assistance of counsel. Defendants must also demonstrate a reasonable probability the plea would have been entered without the prosecution canceling it or the trial court refusing to accept it, if they had the authority to exercise that discretion under state law. To establish prejudice in this instance, it is necessary to show a reasonable probability that the end result of the criminal process would have been more favorable by reason of a plea to a lesser charge or a sentence of less prison time.

    This application of Strickland to the instances of an uncommunicated, lapsed plea does nothing to alter the standard laid out in Hill. In cases where a defendant complains that ineffective assistance led him to accept a plea offer as opposed to proceeding to trial, the defendant will have to show “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill was correctly decided and applies in the context in which it arose. Hill does not, however, provide the sole means for demonstrating prejudice arising from the deficient performance of counsel during plea negotiations. Unlike the defendant in Hill, Frye argues that with effective assistance he would have accepted an earlier plea offer (limiting his sentence to one year in prison) as opposed to entering an open plea (exposing him to a maximum sentence of four years’ imprisonment). In a case, such as this, where a defendant pleads guilty to less favorable terms and claims that ineffective assistance of counsel caused him to miss out on a more favorable earlier plea offer, Strickland’s inquiry into whether “the result of the proceeding would have been different,” requires looking not at whether the defendant would have proceeded to trial absent ineffective assistance but whether he would have accepted the offer to plead pursuant to the terms earlier proposed.

    In order to complete a showing of Strickland prejudice, defendants who have shown a reasonable probability they would have accepted the earlier plea offer must also show that, if the prosecution had the discretion to cancel it or if the trial court had the discretion to refuse to accept it, there is a reasonable probability neither the prosecution nor the trial court would have prevented the offer from being accepted or implemented. This further showing is of particular importance because a defendant has no right to be offered a plea nor a federal right that the judge accept it. In at least some States, including Missouri, it appears the prosecution has some discretion to cancel a plea agreement to which the defendant has agreed. The Federal Rules, some state rules including in Missouri, and this Court’s precedents give trial courts some leeway to accept or reject plea agreements. It can be assumed that in most jurisdictions prosecutors and judges are familiar with the boundaries of acceptable plea bargains and sentences. So in most instances it should not be difficult to make an objective assessment as to whether or not a particular fact or intervening circumstance would suffice, in the normal course, to cause prosecutorial withdrawal or judicial nonapproval of a plea bargain. The determination that there is or is not a reasonable probability that the outcome of the proceeding would have been different absent counsel’s errors can be conducted within that framework.


    These standards must be applied to the instant case. As regards the deficient performance prong of Strickland, the Court of Appeals found the “record is void of any evidence of any effort by trial counsel to communicate the [formal] Offer to Frye during the Offer window, let alone any evidence that Frye’s conduct interfered with trial counsel’s ability to do so.” On this record, it is evident that Frye’s attorney did not make a meaningful attempt to inform the defendant of a written plea offer before the offer expired. The Missouri Court of Appeals was correct that “counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.”

    The Court of Appeals erred, however, in articulating the precise standard for prejudice in this context. As noted, a defendant in Frye’s position must show not only a reasonable probability that he would have accepted the lapsed plea but also a reasonable probability that the prosecution would have adhered to the agreement and that it would have been accepted by the trial court. Frye can show he would have accepted the offer, but there is strong reason to doubt the prosecution and the trial court would have permitted the plea bargain to become final.

    There appears to be a reasonable probability Frye would have accepted the prosecutor’s original offer of a plea bargain if the offer had been communicated to him, because he pleaded guilty to a more serious charge, with no promise of a sentencing recommendation from the prosecutor. It may be that in some cases defendants must show more than just a guilty plea to a charge or sentence harsher than the original offer. For example, revelations between plea offers about the strength of the prosecution’s case may make a late decision to plead guilty insufficient to demonstrate, without further evidence, that the defendant would have pleaded guilty to an earlier, more generous plea offer if his counsel had reported it to him. Here, however, that is not the case. The Court of Appeals did not err in finding Frye’s acceptance of the less favorable plea offer indicated that he would have accepted the earlier (and more favorable) offer had he been apprised of it; and there is no need to address here the showings that might be required in other cases.

    The Court of Appeals failed, however, to require Frye to show that the first plea offer, if accepted by Frye, would have been adhered to by the prosecution and accepted by the trial court. Whether the prosecution and trial court are required to do so is a matter of state law, and it is not the place of this Court to settle those matters. The Court has established the minimum requirements of the Sixth Amendment as interpreted in Strickland, and States have the discretion to add procedural protections under state law if they choose. A State may choose to preclude the prosecution from withdrawing a plea offer once it has been accepted or perhaps to preclude a trial court from rejecting a plea bargain. In Missouri, it appears “a plea offer once accepted by the defendant can be withdrawn without recourse” by the prosecution. The extent of the trial court’s discretion in Missouri to reject a plea agreement appears to be in some doubt.

    We remand for the Missouri Court of Appeals to consider these state-law questions, because they bear on the federal question of Strickland prejudice. If, as the Missouri court stated here, the prosecutor could have canceled the plea agreement, and if Frye fails to show a reasonable probability the prosecutor would have adhered to the agreement, there is no Strickland prejudice. Likewise, if the trial court could have refused to accept the plea agreement, and if Frye fails to show a reasonable probability the trial court would have accepted the plea, there is no Strickland prejudice. In this case, given Frye’s new offense for driving without a license on December 30, 2007, there is reason to doubt that the prosecution would have adhered to the agreement or that the trial court would have accepted it at the January 4, 2008, hearing, unless they were required by state law to do so.

    It is appropriate to allow the Missouri Court of Appeals to address this question in the first instance. The judgment of the Missouri Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

    * * *

    As the Frye Court noted, the Court decided in Padilla v. Kentucky that effective representation includes informing a defendant of the “immigration consequences” of a guilty plea. Because immigration law is complicated, and the consequences of a conviction (for example, whether it will lead to the convicted defendant’s removal from the United States) may not be obvious, criminal defense lawyers should obtain assistance from lawyers with immigration expertise.

    In our next case, the Court considered whether a lawyer may concede a defendant’s guilt—as part of a strategy to avoid a death sentence—over the client’s objection.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Robert Leroy McCoy v. Louisiana

    Decided May 14, 2018 – 138 S. Ct. 1500

    Justice GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.

    In Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175 (2004), this Court considered whether the Constitution bars defense counsel from conceding a capital defendant’s guilt at trial “when [the] defendant, informed by counsel, neither consents nor objects.” In that case, defense counsel had several times explained to the defendant a proposed guilt-phase concession strategy, but the defendant was unresponsive. We held that when counsel confers with the defendant and the defendant remains silent, neither approving nor protesting counsel’s proposed concession strategy, “[no] blanket rule demand[s] the defendant’s explicit consent” to implementation of that strategy.

    In the case now before us, in contrast to Nixon, the defendant vociferously insisted that he did not engage in the charged acts and adamantly objected to any admission of guilt. Yet the trial court permitted counsel, at the guilt phase of a capital trial, to tell the jury the defendant “committed three murders…. [H]e’s guilty.” We hold that a defendant has the right to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty. Guaranteeing a defendant the right “to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence,” the Sixth Amendment so demands. With individual liberty—and, in capital cases, life—at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.


    On May 5, 2008, Christine and Willie Young and Gregory Colston were shot and killed in the Youngs’ home in Bossier City, Louisiana. The three victims were the mother, stepfather, and son of Robert McCoy’s estranged wife, Yolanda. Several days later, police arrested McCoy in Idaho. Extradited to Louisiana, McCoy was appointed counsel from the public defender’s office. A Bossier Parish grand jury indicted McCoy on three counts of first-degree murder, and the prosecutor gave notice of intent to seek the death penalty. McCoy pleaded not guilty. Throughout the proceedings, he insistently maintained he was out of State at the time of the killings and that corrupt police killed the victims when a drug deal went wrong. At defense counsel’s request, a court-appointed sanity commission examined McCoy and found him competent to stand trial.

    In December 2009 and January 2010, McCoy told the court his relationship with assigned counsel had broken down irretrievably. He sought and gained leave to represent himself until his parents engaged new counsel for him. In March 2010, Larry English, engaged by McCoy’s parents, enrolled as McCoy’s counsel. English eventually concluded that the evidence against McCoy was overwhelming and that, absent a concession at the guilt stage that McCoy was the killer, a death sentence would be impossible to avoid at the penalty phase. McCoy, English reported, was “furious” when told, two weeks before trial was scheduled to begin, that English would concede McCoy’s commission of the triple murders. McCoy told English “not to make that concession,” and English knew of McCoy’s “complet[e] oppos[ition] to [English] telling the jury that [McCoy] was guilty of killing the three victims”; instead of any concession, McCoy pressed English to pursue acquittal.

    At a July 26, 2011 hearing, McCoy sought to terminate English’s representation, and English asked to be relieved if McCoy secured other counsel. With trial set to start two days later, the court refused to relieve English and directed that he remain as counsel of record. “[Y]ou are the attorney,” the court told English when he expressed disagreement with McCoy’s wish to put on a defense case, and “you have to make the trial decision of what you’re going to proceed with.”

    At the beginning of his opening statement at the guilt phase of the trial, English told the jury there was “no way reasonably possible” that they could hear the prosecution’s evidence and reach “any other conclusion than Robert McCoy was the cause of these individuals’ death.” McCoy protested; out of earshot of the jury, McCoy told the court that English was “selling [him] out” by maintaining that McCoy “murdered [his] family.” The trial court reiterated that English was “representing” McCoy and told McCoy that the court would not permit “any other outbursts.” Continuing his opening statement, English told the jury the evidence is “unambiguous,” “my client committed three murders.” McCoy testified in his own defense, maintaining his innocence and pressing an alibi difficult to fathom. In his closing argument, English reiterated that McCoy was the killer. On that issue, English told the jury that he “took [the] burden off of [the prosecutor].” The jury then returned a unanimous verdict of guilty of first-degree murder on all three counts. At the penalty phase, English again conceded “Robert McCoy committed these crimes,” but urged mercy in view of McCoy’s “serious mental and emotional issues.” The jury returned three death verdicts.

    Represented by new counsel, McCoy unsuccessfully moved for a new trial, arguing that the trial court violated his constitutional rights by allowing English to concede McCoy “committed three murders” over McCoy’s objection. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that defense counsel had authority so to concede guilt, despite the defendant’s opposition to any admission of guilt.

    We granted certiorari in view of a division of opinion among state courts of last resort on the question whether it is unconstitutional to allow defense counsel to concede guilt over the defendant’s intransigent and unambiguous objection.


    The Sixth Amendment guarantees to each criminal defendant “the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” At common law, self-representation was the norm. As the laws of England and the American Colonies developed, providing for a right to counsel in criminal cases, self-representation remained common and the right to proceed without counsel was recognized. Even now, when most defendants choose to be represented by counsel, an accused may insist upon representing herself—however counterproductive that course may be. As this Court explained, “[t]he right to defend is personal,” and a defendant’s choice in exercising that right “must be honored out of ‘that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law.’”

    The choice is not all or nothing: To gain assistance, a defendant need not surrender control entirely to counsel. For the Sixth Amendment, in “grant[ing] to the accused personally the right to make his defense,” “speaks of the ‘assistance’ of counsel, and an assistant, however expert, is still an assistant.” Trial management is the lawyer’s province: Counsel provides his or her assistance by making decisions such as “what arguments to pursue, what evidentiary objections to raise, and what agreements to conclude regarding the admission of evidence.” Some decisions, however, are reserved for the client—notably, whether to plead guilty, waive the right to a jury trial, testify in one’s own behalf, and forgo an appeal.

    Autonomy to decide that the objective of the defense is to assert innocence belongs in this latter category. Just as a defendant may steadfastly refuse to plead guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence against her, or reject the assistance of legal counsel despite the defendant’s own inexperience and lack of professional qualifications, so may she insist on maintaining her innocence at the guilt phase of a capital trial. These are not strategic choices about how best to achieve a client’s objectives; they are choices about what the client’s objectives in fact are.

    Counsel may reasonably assess a concession of guilt as best suited to avoiding the death penalty, as English did in this case. But the client may not share that objective. He may wish to avoid, above all else, the opprobrium that comes with admitting he killed family members. Or he may hold life in prison not worth living and prefer to risk death for any hope, however small, of exoneration. When a client expressly asserts that the objective of “his defence” is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts, his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt.

    Preserving for the defendant the ability to decide whether to maintain his innocence should not displace counsel’s, or the court’s, respective trial management roles. Counsel, in any case, must still develop a trial strategy and discuss it with her client, explaining why, in her view, conceding guilt would be the best option. In this case, the court had determined that McCoy was competent to stand trial, i.e., that McCoy had “sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding.” If, after consultations with English concerning the management of the defense, McCoy disagreed with English’s proposal to concede McCoy committed three murders, it was not open to English to override McCoy’s objection. English could not interfere with McCoy’s telling the jury “I was not the murderer,” although counsel could, if consistent with providing effective assistance, focus his own collaboration on urging that McCoy’s mental state weighed against conviction.


    Because a client’s autonomy, not counsel’s competence, is in issue, we do not apply our ineffective-assistance-of-counsel jurisprudence to McCoy’s claim. To gain redress for attorney error, a defendant ordinarily must show prejudice. Here, however, the violation of McCoy’s protected autonomy right was complete when the court allowed counsel to usurp control of an issue within McCoy’s sole prerogative.

    Violation of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment-secured autonomy ranks as error of the kind our decisions have called “structural”; when present, such an error is not subject to harmless-error review. Structural error “affect[s] the framework within which the trial proceeds,” as distinguished from a lapse or flaw that is “simply an error in the trial process itself.” An error may be ranked structural, we have explained, “if the right at issue is not designed to protect the defendant from erroneous conviction but instead protects some other interest,” such as “the fundamental legal principle that a defendant must be allowed to make his own choices about the proper way to protect his own liberty.” An error might also count as structural when its effects are too hard to measure, as is true of the right to counsel of choice, or where the error will inevitably signal fundamental unfairness, as we have said of a judge’s failure to tell the jury that it may not convict unless it finds the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Under at least the first two rationales, counsel’s admission of a client’s guilt over the client’s express objection is error structural in kind. Such an admission blocks the defendant’s right to make the fundamental choices about his own defense. And the effects of the admission would be immeasurable, because a jury would almost certainly be swayed by a lawyer’s concession of his client’s guilt. McCoy must therefore be accorded a new trial without any need first to show prejudice.

    Larry English was placed in a difficult position; he had an unruly client and faced a strong government case. He reasonably thought the objective of his representation should be avoidance of the death penalty. But McCoy insistently maintained: “I did not murder my family.” Once he communicated that to court and counsel, strenuously objecting to English’s proposed strategy, a concession of guilt should have been off the table. The trial court’s allowance of English’s admission of McCoy’s guilt despite McCoy’s insistent objections was incompatible with the Sixth Amendment. Because the error was structural, a new trial is the required corrective.

    For the reasons stated, the judgment of the Louisiana Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

    Justice ALITO, with whom Justice THOMAS and Justice GORSUCH join, dissenting.

    The Constitution gives us the authority to decide real cases and controversies; we do not have the right to simplify or otherwise change the facts of a case in order to make our work easier or to achieve a desired result. But that is exactly what the Court does in this case. The Court overturns petitioner’s convictions for three counts of first-degree murder by attributing to his trial attorney, Larry English, something that English never did. The Court holds that English violated petitioner’s constitutional rights by “admit[ting] h[is] client’s guilt of a charged crime over the client’s intransigent objection.” But English did not admit that petitioner was guilty of first-degree murder. Instead, faced with overwhelming evidence that petitioner shot and killed the three victims, English admitted that petitioner committed one element of that offense, i.e., that he killed the victims. But English strenuously argued that petitioner was not guilty of first-degree murder because he lacked the intent (the mens rea) required for the offense. So the Court’s newly discovered fundamental right simply does not apply to the real facts of this case.

    The real case is far more complex. Indeed, the real situation English faced at the beginning of petitioner’s trial was the result of a freakish confluence of factors that is unlikely to recur.

    Retained by petitioner’s family, English found himself in a predicament as the trial date approached. The evidence against his client was truly “overwhelming,” as the Louisiana Supreme Court aptly noted. Among other things, the evidence showed the following. Before the killings took place, petitioner had abused and threatened to kill his wife, and she was therefore under police protection. On the night of the killings, petitioner’s mother-in-law made a 911 call and was heard screaming petitioner’s first name. She yelled: “‘She ain’t here, Robert … I don’t know where she is. The detectives have her. Talk to the detectives. She ain’t in there, Robert.’” Moments later, a gunshot was heard, and the 911 call was disconnected.

    Officers were dispatched to the scene, and on arrival, they found three dead or dying victims—petitioner’s mother-in-law, her husband, and the teenage son of petitioner’s wife. The officers saw a man who fit petitioner’s description fleeing in petitioner’s car. They chased the suspect, but he abandoned the car along with critical evidence linking him to the crime: the cordless phone petitioner’s mother-in-law had used to call 911 and a receipt for the type of ammunition used to kill the victims. Petitioner was eventually arrested while hitchhiking in Idaho, and a loaded gun found in his possession was identified as the one used to shoot the victims. In addition to all this, a witness testified that petitioner had asked to borrow money to purchase bullets shortly before the shootings, and surveillance footage showed petitioner purchasing the ammunition on the day of the killings. And two of petitioner’s friends testified that he confessed to killing at least one person.

    Despite all this evidence, petitioner, who had been found competent to stand trial and had refused to plead guilty by reason of insanity, insisted that he did not kill the victims. He claimed that the victims were killed by the local police and that he had been framed by a farflung conspiracy of state and federal officials, reaching from Louisiana to Idaho. Petitioner believed that even his attorney and the trial judge had joined the plot.

    The weekend before trial, … [h]e asked the trial court to replace English, and English asked for permission to withdraw. Petitioner stated that he had secured substitute counsel, but he was unable to provide the name of this new counsel, and no new attorney ever appeared. The court refused these requests and also denied petitioner’s last-minute request to represent himself. (Petitioner does not challenge these decisions here.) So petitioner and English were stuck with each other, and petitioner availed himself of his right to take the stand to tell his wild story. Under those circumstances, what was English supposed to do?

    The Louisiana Supreme Court held that English could not have put on petitioner’s desired defense without violating state ethics rules, but this Court effectively overrules the state court on this issue of state law. However, even if it is assumed that the Court is correct on this ethics issue, the result of mounting petitioner’s conspiracy defense almost certainly would have been disastrous. That approach stood no chance of winning an acquittal and would have severely damaged English’s credibility in the eyes of the jury, thus undermining his ability to argue effectively against the imposition of a death sentence at the penalty phase of the trial. As English observed, taking that path would have only “help[ed] the District Attorney send [petitioner] to the death chamber.” So, again, what was English supposed to do?

    When pressed at oral argument before this Court, petitioner’s current counsel eventually provided an answer: English was not required to take any affirmative steps to support petitioner’s bizarre defense, but instead of conceding that petitioner shot the victims, English should have ignored that element entirely. So the fundamental right supposedly violated in this case comes down to the difference between the two statements set out below.

    Constitutional: “First-degree murder requires proof both that the accused killed the victim and that he acted with the intent to kill. I submit to you that my client did not have the intent required for conviction for that offense.”

    Unconstitutional: “First-degree murder requires proof both that the accused killed the victim and that he acted with the intent to kill. I admit that my client shot and killed the victims, but I submit to you that he did not have the intent required for conviction for that offense.”

    The practical difference between these two statements is negligible. If English had conspicuously refrained from endorsing petitioner’s story and had based his defense solely on petitioner’s dubious mental condition, the jury would surely have gotten the message that English was essentially conceding that petitioner killed the victims. But according to petitioner’s current attorney, the difference is fundamental. The first formulation, he admits, is perfectly fine. The latter, on the other hand, is a violation so egregious that the defendant’s conviction must be reversed even if there is no chance that the misstep caused any harm. It is no wonder that the Court declines to embrace this argument and instead turns to an issue that the case at hand does not actually present.

    The constitutional right that the Court has now discovered—a criminal defendant’s right to insist that his attorney contest his guilt with respect to all charged offenses—is like a rare plant that blooms every decade or so. Having made its first appearance today, the right is unlikely to figure in another case for many years to come. Why is this so?

    First, it is hard to see how the right could come into play in any case other than a capital case in which the jury must decide both guilt and punishment. In all other cases, guilt is almost always the only issue for the jury, and therefore admitting guilt of all charged offenses will achieve nothing. It is hard to imagine a situation in which a competent attorney might take that approach. So the right that the Court has discovered is effectively confined to capital cases.

    Second, few rational defendants facing a possible death sentence are likely to insist on contesting guilt where there is no real chance of acquittal and where admitting guilt may improve the chances of avoiding execution. Indeed, under such circumstances, the odds are that a rational defendant will plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. By the same token, an attorney is unlikely to insist on admitting guilt over the defendant’s objection unless the attorney believes that contesting guilt would be futile. So the right is most likely to arise in cases involving irrational capital defendants.

    Third, where a capital defendant and his retained attorney cannot agree on a basic trial strategy, the attorney and client will generally part ways unless, as in this case, the court is not apprised until the eve of trial. The client will then either search for another attorney or decide to represent himself. So the field of cases in which this right might arise is limited further still—to cases involving irrational capital defendants who disagree with their attorneys’ proposed strategy yet continue to retain them.

    Fourth, if counsel is appointed, and unreasonably insists on admitting guilt over the defendant’s objection, a capable trial judge will almost certainly grant a timely request to appoint substitute counsel. And if such a request is denied, the ruling may be vulnerable on appeal.

    Finally, even if all the above conditions are met, the right that the Court now discovers will not come into play unless the defendant expressly protests counsel’s strategy of admitting guilt. Where the defendant is advised of the strategy and says nothing, or is equivocal, the right is deemed to have been waived.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    In general, courts reviewing claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are deferential to decisions by lawyers that can plausibly be described as “strategy.” Notwithstanding the result in McCoy, lawyers enjoy broad latitude to decide how to achieve a client’s objectives, and judges rarely second guess choices simply because bad results followed. By contrast, ineffective assistance claims have greater success when a lawyer’s action (or inaction) appears driven by laziness rather than by tactics.

    For example, a lawyer who interviews a potential alibi witness and chooses not to call her as a trial witness can later explain the strategy behind the choice. Perhaps the witness seemed shifty and counsel feared the jury would think poorly of a defendant who called such a witness. But if a client tells a lawyer of a potential alibi witness, and the lawyer conducts no investigation, the lawyer may have trouble justifying that choice.

    Relatedly, defense lawyers have a duty to obtain expert testimony in cases where any reasonable lawyer would do so. An insanity defense, for example, will normally require expert testimony about the client’s mental health.

    A few examples help illustrate the sorts of failings that constitute ineffective assistance:

    In Hinton v. Alabama, 571 U.S. 263 (2014), the lawyer in a capital case had failed to obtain a qualified expert on “firearms and toolmark” evidence, largely because the lawyer erroneously believed that state law authorized only $1,000 for the cost of an expert. The Court held, “The trial attorney’s failure to request additional funding in order to replace an expert he knew to be inadequate because he mistakenly believed that he had received all he could get under Alabama law constituted deficient performance.” Subsequently, Hinton was exonerated and released after thirty years in prison. He tells his story in The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row (2018).

    In Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003), the Court found ineffective assistance in the penalty phase of a capital case after trial counsel failed to conduct an adequate investigation into the defendant’s background. “Counsel’s decision not to expand their investigation beyond the [presentence investigation (PSI) report] and the [Baltimore City Department of Social Services (DSS)] records fell short of the professional standards that prevailed in Maryland in 1989.”

    In Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374 (2005), the Court found ineffective assistance in a lawyer’s failure to examine a capital defendant’s prior case files. “Counsel knew that the Commonwealth intended to seek the death penalty by proving Rompilla had a significant history of felony convictions indicating the use or threat of violence, an aggravator under state law. … [I]t is difficult to see how counsel could have failed to realize that without examining the readily available file they were seriously compromising their opportunity to respond to a case for aggravation.”

    Rompilla offers insight on how changes to Court membership can affect constitutional law. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor voted with the majority, and the case was decided 5-4. (She joined the majority opinion and also filed a concurrence.) About two weeks afterward, O’Connor announced her retirement. O’Connor’s seat on the Court was then filled by Justice Samuel Alito, who joined the Court in 2006. As it happens, the Third Circuit judgment reversed by the Supreme Court in Rompilla was explained in an opinion written by then-Circuit Judge Alito. See 355 F.3d 233. Would a case with similar facts be decided the same way today?

    Self-Representation by Criminal Defendants

    In Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), the Court considered “whether a defendant in a state criminal trial has a constitutional right to proceed without counsel when he voluntarily and intelligently elects to do so.” The Court said that another way to frame the question was “whether a State may constitutionally hale a person into its criminal courts and there force a lawyer upon him, even when he insists that he wants to conduct his own defense.”

    In an opinion by Justice Stewart, the Court noted that a defendant’s right to represent himself in criminal cases had long been recognized in America. “In the federal courts, the right of self-representation has been protected by statute since the beginnings of our Nation. With few exceptions, each of the several States also accords a defendant the right to represent himself in any criminal case. The constitutions of 36 States explicitly confer that right. Moreover, many state courts have expressed the view that the right is also supported by the Constitution of the United States.” Recognizing that longstanding practice has its own persuasive authority, the Court wrote, “We confront here a nearly universal conviction, on the part of our people as well as our courts, that forcing a lawyer upon an unwilling defendant is contrary to his basic right to defend himself if he truly wants to do so.”

    The Court noted, too, that the Sixth Amendment provides the defendant with various rights; the rights are not provided to the lawyer. “The Sixth Amendment does not provide merely that a defense shall be made for the accused; it grants to the accused personally the right to make his defense. It is the accused, not counsel, who must be ‘informed of the nature and cause of the accusation,’ who must be ‘confronted with the witnesses against him,’ and who must be accorded ‘compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor.’ Although not stated in the Amendment in so many words, the right to self-representation—to make one’s own defense personally—is thus necessarily implied by the structure of the Amendment. The right to defend is given directly to the accused; for it is he who suffers the consequences if the defense fails.”

    The Court then decided that even though a defendant would normally be extraordinarily foolish to forgo the assistance of counsel in favor of self-representation, the Constitution provides the option:

    “It is undeniable that in most criminal prosecutions defendants could better defend with counsel’s guidance than by their own unskilled efforts. But where the defendant will not voluntarily accept representation by counsel, the potential advantage of a lawyer’s training and experience can be realized, if at all, only imperfectly. To force a lawyer on a defendant can only lead him to believe that the law contrives against him. Moreover, it is not inconceivable that in some rare instances, the defendant might in fact present his case more effectively by conducting his own defense. Personal liberties are not rooted in the law of averages. The right to defend is personal. The defendant, and not his lawyer or the State, will bear the personal consequences of a conviction. It is the defendant, therefore, who must be free personally to decide whether in his particular case counsel is to his advantage.”

    When a defendant wishes to forgo counsel, a trial judge must advise the defendant carefully of the consequences. The decision then belongs to the defendant.

    The Court’s decision inspired a spirited dissent.

    Mr. Chief Justice BURGER, with whom Mr. Justice BLACKMUN and Mr. Justice REHNQUIST join, dissenting.

    This case [] is another example of the judicial tendency to constitutionalize what is thought “good.” That effort fails on its own terms here, because there is nothing desirable or useful in permitting every accused person, even the most uneducated and inexperienced, to insist upon conducting his own defense to criminal charges. Moreover, there is no constitutional basis for the Court’s holding, and it can only add to the problems of an already malfunctioning criminal justice system. I therefore dissent.

    The fact of the matter is that in all but an extraordinarily small number of cases an accused will lose whatever defense he may have if he undertakes to conduct the trial himself. The Court’s opinion in Powell v. Alabama puts the point eloquently:

    “Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. If charged with crime, he is incapable, generally, of determining for himself whether the indictment is good or bad. He is unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Left without the aid of counsel he may be put on trial without a proper charge, and convicted upon incompetent evidence, or evidence irrelevant to the issue or otherwise inadmissible. He lacks both the skill and knowledge adequately to prepare his defense, even though he have a perfect one. He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence. If that be true of men of intelligence, how much more true is it of the ignorant and illiterate, or those of feeble intellect.”

    Obviously, these considerations do not vary depending upon whether the accused actively desires to be represented by counsel or wishes to proceed pro se. Nor is it accurate to suggest, as the Court seems to later in its opinion, that the quality of his representation at trial is a matter with which only the accused is legitimately concerned. Although we have adopted an adversary system of criminal justice, the prosecution is more than an ordinary litigant, and the trial judge is not simply an automaton who insures that technical rules are adhered to. Both are charged with the duty of insuring that justice, in the broadest sense of that term, is achieved in every criminal trial. That goal is ill-served, and the integrity of and public confidence in the system are undermined, when an easy conviction is obtained due to the defendant’s ill-advised decision to waive counsel. The damage thus inflicted is not mitigated by the lame explanation that the defendant simply availed himself of the “freedom” “to go to jail under his own banner ….” The system of criminal justice should not be available as an instrument of self-destruction.

    In short, both the “spirit and the logic” of the Sixth Amendment are that every person accused of crime shall receive the fullest possible defense; in the vast majority of cases this command can be honored only by means of the expressly guaranteed right to counsel, and the trial judge is in the best position to determine whether the accused is capable of conducting his defense. True freedom of choice and society’s interest in seeing that justice is achieved can be vindicated only if the trial court retains discretion to reject any attempted waiver of counsel and insist that the accused be tried according to the Constitution. This discretion is as critical an element of basic fairness as a trial judge’s discretion to decline to accept a plea of guilty.

    Society has the right to expect that, when courts find new rights implied in the Constitution, their potential effect upon the resources of our criminal justice system will be considered. However, such considerations are conspicuously absent from the Court’s opinion in this case.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    After the Court decided Faretta, a few sensational cases followed in which criminal defendants represented themselves in especially ineffective ways, perhaps causing embarrassment to the judicial system in addition to themselves. The case of Colin Ferguson, who shot fellow passengers on a Long Island Rail Road train in 1993, became especially famous. Ferguson killed six passengers and shot several others. He later represented himself at trial, questioning victims he had shot. He referred to himself in the third person, stating, for example, that “at the time that Mr. Ferguson was on the train,” he fell asleep and then someone else took his gun.

    He asked one witness, “Is it your testimony that the defendant Ferguson stood right in front of you and shot you?”

    The witness answered, “You weren’t right in front of me. You were about ten to twelve feet away, approximately the distance we’re at about now.”

    His performance was parodied on Saturday Night Live. “I did not shoot them. They shot me,” the SNL Ferguson said in his opening statement. He continued, “There is no such thing as a ‘railroad’ or a ‘Long Island.’ Colin Ferguson is the victim of a conspiracy.”

    Do cases like these show that Faretta is wrongly decided, or are they a necessary evil associated with vindicating the rights explained by the Court?

    In Indiana v. Edwards, the Court considered how to apply Faretta to defendants who may lack the mental competence to conduct their own defense. Students should note that the mental state of a defendant can be evaluated at three different times (at least) for different purposes. For a defense based on insanity or mental disease or defect, the question is what mental state the defendant had at the moment she committed an offense. Regardless of the defendant’s mental state at the crime scene, a court may deem someone incompetent to stand trial if she is unable to understand the character and consequences of the proceedings against her or is unable properly to assist in her defense (that is, to communicate with counsel about defense strategies). Finally, there is the question of whether a defendant who is competent to stand trial might nonetheless be incompetent to represent himself. The Edwards Court decided whether such a category of defendants exists and, if so, how trial courts should deal with them.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Indiana v. Ahmad Edwards

    Decided June 19, 2008 – 554 U.S. 164

    Justice BREYER delivered the opinion of the Court.

    This case focuses upon a criminal defendant whom a state court found mentally competent to stand trial if represented by counsel but not mentally competent to conduct that trial himself. We must decide whether in these circumstances the Constitution prohibits a State from insisting that the defendant proceed to trial with counsel, the State thereby denying the defendant the right to represent himself. We conclude that the Constitution does not forbid a State so to insist.


    In July 1999, Ahmad Edwards, the respondent, tried to steal a pair of shoes from an Indiana department store. After he was discovered, he drew a gun, fired at a store security officer, and wounded a bystander. He was caught and then charged with attempted murder, battery with a deadly weapon, criminal recklessness, and theft. His mental condition subsequently became the subject of three competency proceedings and two self-representation requests, mostly before the same trial judge:

    1. First Competency Hearing: August 2000. Five months after Edwards’ arrest, his court-appointed counsel asked for a psychiatric evaluation. After hearing psychiatrist and neuropsychologist witnesses (in February 2000 and again in August 2000), the court found Edwards incompetent to stand trial, and committed him to Logansport State Hospital for evaluation and treatment.

    2. Second Competency Hearing: March 2002. Seven months after his commitment, doctors found that Edwards’ condition had improved to the point where he could stand trial. Several months later, however, but still before trial, Edwards’ counsel asked for another psychiatric evaluation. In March 2002, the judge held a competency hearing, considered additional psychiatric evidence, and (in April) found that Edwards, while “suffer[ing] from mental illness,” was “competent to assist his attorneys in his defense and stand trial for the charged crimes.”

    3. Third Competency Hearing: April 2003. Seven months later but still before trial, Edwards’ counsel sought yet another psychiatric evaluation of his client. And, in April 2003, the court held yet another competency hearing. Edwards’ counsel presented further psychiatric and neuropsychological evidence showing that Edwards was suffering from serious thinking difficulties and delusions. A testifying psychiatrist reported that Edwards could understand the charges against him, but he was “unable to cooperate with his attorney in his defense because of his schizophrenic illness”; “[h]is delusions and his marked difficulties in thinking make it impossible for him to cooperate with his attorney.” In November 2003, the court concluded that Edwards was not then competent to stand trial and ordered his recommitment to the state hospital.

    4. First Self-Representation Request and First Trial: June 2005. About eight months after his commitment, the hospital reported that Edwards’ condition had again improved to the point that he had again become competent to stand trial. And almost one year after that, Edwards’ trial began. Just before trial, Edwards asked to represent himself. He also asked for a continuance, which, he said, he needed in order to proceed pro se. The court refused the continuance. Edwards then proceeded to trial represented by counsel. The jury convicted him of criminal recklessness and theft but failed to reach a verdict on the charges of attempted murder and battery.

    5. Second Self–Representation Request and Second Trial: December 2005. The State decided to retry Edwards on the attempted murder and battery charges. Just before the retrial, Edwards again asked the court to permit him to represent himself. Referring to the lengthy record of psychiatric reports, the trial court noted that Edwards still suffered from schizophrenia and concluded that “[w]ith these findings, he’s competent to stand trial but I’m not going to find he’s competent to defend himself.” The court denied Edwards’ self-representation request. Edwards was represented by appointed counsel at his retrial. The jury convicted Edwards on both of the remaining counts.

    Edwards subsequently appealed to Indiana’s intermediate appellate court. He argued that the trial court’s refusal to permit him to represent himself at his retrial deprived him of his constitutional right of self-representation. The court agreed and ordered a new trial. The matter then went to the Indiana Supreme Court. That court found that “[t]he record in this case presents a substantial basis to agree with the trial court,” but it nonetheless affirmed the intermediate appellate court. At Indiana’s request, we agreed to consider whether the Constitution required the trial court to allow Edwards to represent himself at trial.


    Our examination of this Court’s precedents convinces us that those precedents frame the question presented, but they do not answer it. The two cases that set forth the Constitution’s “mental competence” standard, Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960) (per curiam), and Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162 (1975), specify that the Constitution does not permit trial of an individual who lacks “mental competency.” Dusky defines the competency standard as including both (1) “whether” the defendant has “a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him” and (2) whether the defendant “has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding.” Drope repeats that standard, stating that it “has long been accepted that a person whose mental condition is such that he lacks the capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense may not be subjected to a trial.” Neither case considered the mental competency issue presented here, namely, the relation of the mental competence standard to the right of self-representation.

    The Court’s foundational “self-representation” case, Faretta, 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.” The Court implied that right from: (1) a “nearly universal conviction,” made manifest in state law, that “forcing a lawyer upon an unwilling defendant is contrary to his basic right to defend himself if he truly wants to do so”; (2) Sixth Amendment language granting rights to the “accused”; (3) Sixth Amendment structure indicating that the rights it sets forth, related to the “fair administration of American justice,” are “persona[l]” to the accused; (4) the absence of historical examples of forced representation; and (5) “‘respect for the individual.’”

    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.

    The sole case in which this Court considered mental competence and self-representation together, Godinez [v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389 (1993)], presents a question closer to that at issue here. The case focused upon a borderline-competent criminal defendant who had asked a state trial court to permit him to represent himself and to change his pleas from not guilty to guilty. The state trial court had found that the defendant met Dusky’s mental competence standard, that he “knowingly and intelligently” waived his right to assistance of counsel, and that he “freely and voluntarily” chose to plead guilty. And the state trial court had consequently granted the defendant’s self-representation and change-of-plea requests. A federal appeals court, however, had vacated the defendant’s guilty pleas on the ground that the Constitution required the trial court to ask a further question, namely, whether the defendant was competent to waive his constitutional right to counsel. Competence to make that latter decision, the appeals court said, required the defendant to satisfy a higher mental competency standard than the standard set forth in Dusky. Dusky’s more general standard sought only to determine whether a defendant represented by counsel was competent to stand trial, not whether he was competent to waive his right to counsel.

    This Court, reversing the Court of Appeals, “reject[ed] the notion that competence to plead guilty or to waive the right to counsel must be measured by a standard that is higher than (or even different from) the Dusky standard.” The decision to plead guilty, we said, “is no more complicated than the sum total of decisions that a [represented] defendant may be called upon to make during the course of a trial.” Hence “there is no reason to believe that the decision to waive counsel requires an appreciably higher level of mental functioning than the decision to waive other constitutional rights.” And even assuming that self-representation might pose special trial-related difficulties, “the competence that is required of a defendant seeking to waive his right to counsel is the competence to waive the right, not the competence to represent himself.” For this reason, we concluded, “the defendant’s ‘technical legal knowledge’ is ‘not relevant’ to the determination.”

    We concede that Godinez bears certain similarities with the present case. Both involve mental competence and self-representation. Both involve a defendant who wants to represent himself. Both involve a mental condition that falls in a gray area between Dusky’s minimal constitutional requirement that measures a defendant’s ability to stand trial and a somewhat higher standard that measures mental fitness for another legal purpose.

    We nonetheless conclude that Godinez does not answer the question before us now. In part that is because the Court of Appeals’ higher standard at issue in Godinez differs in a critical way from the higher standard at issue here. In Godinez, the higher standard sought to measure the defendant’s ability to proceed on his own to enter a guilty plea; here the higher standard seeks to measure the defendant’s ability to conduct trial proceedings. To put the matter more specifically, the Godinez defendant sought only to change his pleas to guilty, he did not seek to conduct trial proceedings, and his ability to conduct a defense at trial was expressly not at issue. Thus we emphasized in Godinez that we needed to consider only the defendant’s “competence to waive the right.” And we further emphasized that we need not consider the defendant’s “technical legal knowledge” about how to proceed at trial. We found our holding consistent with this Court’s earlier statement that “[o]ne might not be insane in the sense of being incapable of standing trial and yet lack the capacity to stand trial without benefit of counsel.” In this case, the very matters that we did not consider in Godinez are directly before us.


    We now turn to the question presented. We assume that a criminal defendant has sufficient mental competence to stand trial (i.e., the defendant meets Dusky’s standard) and that the defendant insists on representing himself during that trial. 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. First, the Court’s precedent, while not answering the question, points slightly in the direction of our affirmative answer. Godinez, as we have just said, simply leaves the question open. But the 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.

    At the same time Faretta, the foundational self-representation case, rested its conclusion in part upon pre-existing state law set forth in cases all of which are consistent with, and at least two of which expressly adopt, a competency limitation on the self-representation right.

    Second, the 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 history of this case illustrates the complexity of the problem. In certain instances an individual may well be able to satisfy Dusky’s mental competence standard, for he will be able to work with counsel at trial, yet at the same time he may be unable to carry out the basic tasks needed to present his own defense without the help of counsel.

    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.

    Third, in 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 a 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.

    Further, proceedings must not only be fair, they must “appear fair to all who observe them.” An amicus brief reports one psychiatrist’s reaction to having observed a patient (a patient who had satisfied Dusky) try to conduct his own defense: “[H]ow in the world can our legal system allow an insane man to defend himself?” The application of Dusky’s basic mental competence standard can help in part to avoid this result. But given the different capacities needed to proceed to trial without counsel, there is little reason to believe that Dusky alone is sufficient. At the same time, the trial judge, particularly one such as the trial judge in this case, who presided over one of Edwards’ competency hearings and his two trials, will often prove best able to make more fine-tuned mental capacity decisions, tailored to the individualized circumstances of a particular defendant.

    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 under Dusky but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves.

    Justice SCALIA, with whom Justice THOMAS joins, dissenting.

    The Constitution guarantees a defendant who knowingly and voluntarily waives the right to counsel the right to proceed pro se at his trial. Faretta v. California. 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. Godinez v. Moran. 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.

    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. We have nonetheless said that the defendant’s “choice must be honored out of ‘that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law.’” What the Constitution requires is not that a State’s case be subject to the most rigorous adversarial testing possible—after all, it permits a defendant to eliminate all adversarial testing by pleading guilty. What the Constitution requires is that a defendant be given the right to challenge the State’s case against him using the arguments he sees fit.

    In Godinez, we held that the Due Process Clause posed no barrier to permitting a defendant who suffered from mental illness both to waive his right to counsel and to plead guilty, so long as he was competent to stand trial and knowingly and voluntarily waived trial and the counsel right. It was “never the rule at common law” that a defendant could be competent to stand trial and yet incompetent to either exercise or give up some of the rights provided for his defense. We rejected the invitation to craft a higher competency standard for waiving counsel than for standing trial. That proposal, we said, was built on the “flawed premise” that a defendant’s “competence to represent himself” was the relevant measure: “[T]he competence that is required of a defendant seeking to waive his right to counsel is the competence to waive the right, not the competence to represent himself.” We grounded this on Faretta’s candid acknowledgment that the Sixth Amendment protected the defendant’s right to conduct a defense to his disadvantage.

    While there is little doubt that preserving individual “‘dignity’” (to which the Court refers) is paramount among those purposes [for which the right of self-representation was intended], there is equally little doubt that the loss of “dignity” the right is designed to prevent is not the defendant’s making a fool of himself by presenting an amateurish or even incoherent defense. Rather, the dignity at issue is the supreme human dignity of being master of one’s fate rather than a ward of the State—the dignity of individual choice.

    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.

    * * *

    Our next few chapters concern eyewitness identifications evidence. We will examine first when the Court has held that a suspect has the right to have counsel attend an identification procedure such as a lineup. Then we will consider substantive regulations on the quality of such procedures, along with best practices for identifications suggested by modern social science.