Friday, July 29, 2005

People v. Blair (Cal. Supreme Ct. - July 28, 2005)

Don't represent yourself in a capital case. Don't do it. Just don't. And if you do, don't be the slightest bit surprised when you're sentenced to death and the conviction and sentence is unanimously affirmed by the California Supreme Court. Which is precisely what happens here.

There's an ongoing -- and important -- debate about whether defendants should really be allowed to represent themselves, particularly in high-stakes matters such as these. But I agree with the California Supreme Court that, at present, defendants do indeed have that right. Even if it's an utterly irrational and disasterous choice by the defendant, as it assuredly was here. Everybody knew that Blair would be convicted and sentenced to death if he represented himself. Including the prosecution, which was why they were more than willing to go along with his request (as long as they could be fairly certain that it wouldn't result in a reversal on appeal).

But various judges told Blair in no uncertain terms that, yep, he was a fool to represent himself, and that he'd likely be sentenced to die if he did so. So he "knew" what he was doing. Which is all the law requires. So die at the hands of the state he shall.

A very good case that concretely demonstrates what's at stake in the debate about whether or not criminal defendants -- and especially death penalty defendants -- should be allowed to represent themselves. Whether we're willing to let, as here, the defendant put on virtually no evidence at either the guilt or penalty phase of the trial. We'd undoubtedly call a lawyer reversibly incompetent for doing what Blair did here. But since he did it to himself, we're fine with it. Whether or not that's the right policy choice is the only question.