Faretta v. California (1975)

Self-Representation by Criminal Defendants

Faretta v. California (1975)

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 Life. “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. 


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