Atlantic Monthly

A Courtroom of One’s Own

A madman had his day in court yesterday. Ahmad Edwards, a schizophrenic who tried to kill a security guard in 1999, appealed his conviction on grounds that the judge hadn’t let him act as his own lawyer. The Indiana court that eventually convicted him appointed a public defender after Edwards filed nonsense motions and wrote a letter addressing the judge as “old man.” (Edwards has counsel representing him on appeal.) Is it possible, the Supreme Court asked yesterday, to be too crazy to represent yourself in your own trial, but sane enough to stand trial to begin with?

The argument, unlikely to be decided for months, pits two profound interests against each other: the citizen’s Sixth Amendment right to choose his own defense, and the state’s demand for a fair and orderly justice system. Antonin Scalia, the only member of the Court who seemed sympathetic to Edwards, pointed out that we allow defendants to mount no defense whatsoever, so surely they have the lesser right to mount a bad defense. Edwards’s lawyer said his client wasn’t totally incompetent. “There are all kinds of nuts who could get 90 percent on the bar exam,” retorted Anthony Kennedy, in the course of questioning whether this particular nut had a right to defend himself, even if he had a basic understanding of criminal procedure. (He didn’t, it seems: Edwards’s motions invoked scripture and failed even to parse grammatically.) Stephen Breyer pointed out that letting crazy people defend themselves will cause more of them — some innocent, and capable of being gotten off the hook by a competent lawyer — to be thrown in prison.

It was in a sense a moment of Burkean conservatism, upheld by the liberal wing of a now conservative-leaning court. “Am I seriously to felicitate a madman,” Burke famously asked, “who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty?” The justices’ questions made it sound unlikely that madmen will have their sunny days in court much longer, and will instead have to be content with the wholesome strait-jacket of a public defender.

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