Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Playing the System: The Martin Appel Case

The Right to Go It Alone

Since Appel was found competent, he had the right to proceed pro se, according to the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, i.e., to represent himself. In 1975, a decade before, the court had affirmed this for all citizens in the landmark case of Faretta v. California, and eight years later the respective roles of the pro se defendant and standby counsel was further defined in McKaskle v. Wiggins. In Faretta, Anthony Faretta was charged with grand theft in Los Angeles. Although assigned a public defender, he asked to be allowed to represent himself. The judge questioned him and stressed that Faretta was "making a mistake" and would get no special treatment. When Faretta continued to insist, the judge allowed him to go pro se.

Seal of the Supreme Court of the United States
Seal of the Supreme Court of the United States

A few weeks later at a preliminary hearing, the judge asked Faretta several legal questions and based on Faretta's ignorance concluded the defendant had not intelligently waived his right to counsel and must accept a legal representative. Later a federal ruling declared that "the Sixth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that a defendant in a state criminal trial has an independent constitutional right to self-representation and that he may proceed to defend himself without counsel when he voluntarily and intelligently elects to do so."

While the Faretta decision upholds the right to self-representation, the judge is still required to make certain the defendant understands the disadvantages of such a decision. Called a Faretta hearing, the issue of competency is decided in a verbal exchange between the judge and the defendant.

McKaskle v. Wiggins was another landmark case, defining the role of standby counsel in a criminal trial where the defendant opts for to proceed pro se. Wiggins was charged with robbery and he elected to waive counsel. His first trial resulted in a conviction, but this was overturned on a technicality. While Wiggins initially requested counsel for a second trial, he later decided to defend himself and asked that counsel be barred from interfering. However, he sometimes allowed them to participate. When he was convicted again, he filed an appeal, claiming the attorneys' participation had violated his Sixth Amendment right. The Federal Court agreed that counsel should not interfere without permission but found that the participation of Wiggins' attorneys did not constitute interference. The appeal was dismissed, but the case set a precedent for the behavior of standby counsel.

Appel was allowed to be his own attorney, but two public defenders were appointed to act as standby counsel. That way, he could use their services if he elected to, and they would be versed in the proceedings. However, until he was formally granted pro se status, they had been responsible to see that he was appropriately evaluated for competence. It was this brief "limbo" period that would later became an issue. In fact, others, including Appel's girlfriend and family were supposedly aware of issues bearing on his mental state and comepetence, but no one mentioned anything of that nature to these attorneys. What followed suggests that they should have divined it, anyway.

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