Tuesday, June 08, 2010

People v. Weber (Cal. Ct. App. - Jne 7, 2010)

(1) I agree with Justice Sims that Joseph Weber was competent and validly wanted to represent himself. He's got a right to do that. He clearly wanted to. The fact that Weber kept interrupting the judge during the Faretta admonitions doesn't matter. Weber was fully advised of his rights, which he already knew anyway. So no relief. Right result.

(2) Atmospherically, I have a somewhat different take than the other participants here. We all agree that Weber was one of your classic . . . well, rather than finish the sentence, let me tell you what Weber's most consistent argument was in the trial court. His repeated beef: That the flag in the courtroom had yellow fringe, which Weber wanted removed and claimed made the court into an "admiralty" tribunal with no jurisdiction over a "living" person. Add to that the fact that he thought that signing his name a particular way (first name, comma, last name) made a huge judicial difference and you'll understand the kind of person we're talking about.

Justice Sims thinks that all these tactics "were intentional efforts to thwart the proceedings" and "were designed to derail" it, and the psychologists labeled Weber a "malingerer" trying to get an adverse competency ruling. But my take is slightly different. He's not a malingerer. Nor was he trying to "obstruct" the proceedings by making objections he knew were frivolous. I'm instead pretty sure that he actually believed this stuff: the flag, the last name first, the "living person" stuff . . . all of it. You just sometimes get people who go totally off track when confronted with legal issues and half a sense of what they entail, and that -- when combined with intelligence (to a degree) and a fair amount of intellectual hubris and narcissism -- results in people like Weber. Who really believe the crap they're spewing.

Mind you, that doesn't make them incompetent to stand trial. They intellectually "know" what they're up against as much as (or more than) your usual criminal defendant. Sure, their way of responding to that threat is way miguided. But not in a qualitatively different way than someone who's caught dead to rights but who insists on defending himself by saying "I didn't do it". Bad strategies for both. But bad strategies, and bad decisions, don't make for incompetence.

(3) The above is a slight difference. I do have one that's slightly more important, though again at the margins. The trial judge had to deal with Weber's silly objections for months: to the flag, to the concept that anyone "represented" him (as opposed to "defending" him), etc. And I'm very confident the trial judge was sick of the guy. Understandably.

One of defendant's claims, however, is that the judge made fun of him in front of the jury. During jury selection, after the trial judge told prospective jurors the nature of the charges and said that defendant was representing himself, defendant objected and stated he took offense to that term and stated he was "going to 'defend' myself, not 'represent myself,' sir." This comment was then followed by the trial judge starting to tell prospective jurors about hardship exemptions, at which point a lot of jurors immediately raised their hands, at which point the judge said: "I need to talk you out of it before we get into it. Not yet. I‘ve never seen so many people so eager to get out of here."

To me, the "I need to talk you out of it" and "I've never seen so many people so eager to get out of here" clearly refers to the fact that so many jurors wanted to bag once they got a sense of how nutty the defendant was and that he'd be representing himself. The Court of Appeal says it does "not read this passage as a slap at defendant." But it sort of is.

Admittedly, I wouldn't reverse on this basis, and completely agree with Justice Sims when he says that that "jury selection can be protracted and difficult, and judges commonly inject some levity into such proceedings." So I'm okay with it. But I'd still call the comment what it is.

Ditto for the two other examples defendant cites. At one point, defendant said he was confused, and the trial judge responded "I know you are." Justice Sims defends this comment by saying that "on a cold transcript we do not know the tone with which this comment was delivered," a statement that's technically true. But, given the context, I've got a pretty good sense.

For an example of this context, here's the other example defendant isolates. Defendant asked the prosecution's firearms expert if he had a performance bond. Which, I'm sure, was another of these nutty concepts that if you don't have a "bond" you can't testify. The trial court then said: "Do you have a performance bond? Do you have it?" At which point the defendant repeated: "Do you have a performance bond," at which point the trial judge interjected: "Do you have it in your hand?" When the witness then responded "No," and the defendant said "Funny. I find no humor in that, sir," the trial court said "I do. What does that have to do with anything? Of course he doesn't have a performance bond." Again, perhaps understandable to a degree, since judges are human, but an exchange that gives a definite context to what the trial judge was doing. In a way that's definitely not what we're looking for.

(4) The final reality. Defendant represented himself and made the trial judge angry. Defendant is convicted, of course. (Though he does obtain an acquittal on two ancillary counts.) So now it's time for the sentence. Before trial, the prosecution had offered defendant a misdemeanor plea and probation -- i.e., no jail time -- but defendant turned it down. After the trial, the prosecutor suggested a two year prison term, but also said he'd have no objection to 16 months (a year and a third). By contrast, the probation officer recommended straight probation, which (obviously) the defendant would prefer as well.

So what'd the trial court do? Imposed a sentence higher than anyone thought appropriate. The high term on the main count -- three years -- plus another concurrent two years.

Take that. Hope you enjoyed representing yourself.

And the Court of Appeal affirms.