Thursday, March 13, 2008

People v. Clemons (Cal. Ct. App. - March 12, 2008)

I'm not one of those people who bend over backwards doctrinally to let people represent themselves or do whatever idiotic thing comes into their head at trial. Yes, I know, you have a right to represent yourself. But it's a terrible idea, generally. And I'm not entirely convinced that, systemically, the upsides of permitting wholesale self-representation are worth the pervasive downsides. (And I'm not alone; a huge hat tip in this regard goes to my former boss, who's expressed similar concerns and whose thoughts both initially motivated by examination of the issue and continue to influence it.)

That said, I very much agree with Justice Flier in this one. Who (alongside the rest of the panel and their staff) also deserves a hat tip for catching the issue when the Second District's appointed appellate lawyer apparently missed it in the briefing. Put simply, any prisoner who (1) has been in and out of mental institutions, (2) is at various points found incompetent to stand trial, (3) slices the crap out of his own arm (deeply!) with a razor blade in prison, (4) profusely grins at the sheriffs as he reveals his mutiliation, and (5) repeatedly expresses his desire to plead not guilty by reason of insanity to possession of the contraband razor blade he used to slice his arm should, indeed, be allowed to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Especially when there is, as here, virtually no other possible available defense!

Wholly apart from a criminal defendant's right to control his own plea (and Justice Flier is pretty persuasive on this point), this seemed like an entirely reasonable decision, and is entitled to deference. I think the Court of Appeal gets this one exactly right. And I'm as chagrined that the appointed appellate lawyer didn't catch it as I am pleased that chambers did.