Washington Supreme Court Holds No Constitutional Mandate to Determine Competency to Represent Self

In re Rhome, 2011 Wash. LEXIS 743 (September 15, 2011)

The Washington Supreme Court has held that a trial court is not constitutionally required to independently determine whether a defendant was sufficiently competent to waive counsel when he had previously been found competent to stand trial following a pre-trial hearing. The court held that a defendant’s mental health status is but one factor a trial court may consider in determining whether a defendant has knowingly and intelligently waived his right to counsel and to represent himself.

In this case, Rhome was charged with first degree murder with a deadly weapon of a 17- year old girl. Another juvenile confessed to stabbing the girl but identified the defendant as the “mastermind” behind the killing. Since early childhood, the defendant had been treated for psychiatric disturbances, including several in-patient psychiatric hospitalizations. He had received a myriad of diagnoses including, psychotic disorder, delusional disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, mild mental retardation, obsessive/compulsive traits, and pervasive developmental disorder (Aspergers disorder). The trial court held a competency hearing finding that the defendant had not proved he was incompetent to stand trial. Throughout the pre-trial proceedings, the defendant asserted his right to represent himself. The court first denied his request to proceed pro se indicating that his ability to do so was equivocal. After his renewed request, the court advised him of the risks and engaged in coloquy to determine if he understood the significance of this undertaking. His mental health issues were not specifically addressed during the colloquy. The court granted his request and appointed standby counsel to assist him. The jury convicted the defendant and he was sentence to 30 years in prison. A mental health expert for the defense who later examined the defendant’s performance in representing himself testified that his mental illness impacted his ability to defend himself in court. He testified that the defendant engaged in perseverative and aggressive questioning that was incoherent or intimidating, and he was unable to self-regulate his emotions and behavior.

In June 2008, just following the state courts’ denial of the defendant’s direct appeals, the United States Supreme Court decided Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164 (2008). In Edwards, the Supreme Court held that a trial court could insist that a defendant proceed with counsel even though the court had found the defendant was competent to stand trial. The Washington Court stated that the Edwards decision assumes that a defendant will “assist” in his defense, not “conduct” his defense when the defendant has been found competent to stand trial. Competency to stand trial does not equate with the right to represent oneself and the Supreme Court declined to set a standard for the state to follow. In determining whether a defendant has the right to waive counsel, the court considers his background, experience and conduct, which may include his history of mental illness. In denying his petition for post-conviction relief, the Washington Supreme Court held that a defendant’s mental health status is but one factor a trial court must consider in determining whether a defendant has knowingly and intelligently waived his right to counsel. An independent determination of competency for self-representation is not a constitutional mandate.

Found in DMHL Volume 31 Issue 1