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Violent Threats to One Lawyer Did Not Forfeit Right to Another

Marshall-lg A defendant who sent a blood-smeared letter threatening to harm his court-appointed lawyer if he did not withdraw from the case did not lose his right to a new court-appointed lawyer, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has decided. While concluding that a defendant's conduct could conceivably be so serious as to forfeit the right to counsel, the court said that a judge cannot make that decision without first following certain procedural safeguards.

We recognize that threats of violence made by a defendant against his attorney or the attorney's family may constitute "extremely serious misconduct" that may justify a finding that an indigent defendant has forfeited his right to court-appointed counsel. ... In light of the fundamental constitutional rights at stake, before a judge finds that a defendant has forfeited his right to counsel and imposes the extreme sanction of denying an indigent defendant the assistance of counsel at trial or otherwise, she must first conduct a hearing at which the defendant has a full and fair opportunity to offer evidence as to the totality of the circumstances that may bear on the question of whether the sanction of forfeiture is both warranted and appropriate.

The case involved a defendant indicted for assault and battery on a correctional officer. Over the span of a year, the defendant filed several requests with the court indicating his dissatisfaction with his court-appointed attorney and requesting a new one. Shortly before he was to stand trial, he filed another such motion, this time attaching an affidavit in which he disclosed that he had sent a blood-smeared letter to his attorney threatening to harm him and his family if he did not withdraw.

The affidavit said that if the judge did not allow his motion, then he would "physically assault, spit, kick, head-butt, etc." his counsel. He added, "This isn't any joke, I'm very serious! I have major mental health deficiencies, and present very serious anger management issues."

At a hearing on the motion, the trial judge agreed to allow the attorney to withdraw. But the judge refused to appoint a new lawyer, ruling that the defendant, through his egregious misconduct and threats, had forfeited his right to court-appointed counsel. The defendant represented himself at trial and was convicted.

The SJC, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall (pictured), said that a defendant "may engage in misconduct that is so serious that it may justify the loss of his right to counsel." But because the consequences are so severe, she wrote, the sanction of forfeiture should not be imposed until the defendant has had a full and fair opportunity at a hearing to offer evidence as to the totality of the circumstances that may bear on the question."

Finding that the hearing in this case fell short of that requirement, the SJC reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. "The defendant must, if he so requests, be appointed counsel for his retrial," the court said.

The blog Universal Hub has the text of the ruling.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on June 15, 2009 at 11:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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