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Seventh Circuit: Capital Case Defendant Denied Pro Se Right Granted Habeas Relief

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit granted a state prisoner’s petition for habeas corpus relief because the prisoner was denied his right to proceed pro se at trial, in violation of the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

The December 27, 2017 ruling was an unusual occurrence in the realm of federal habeas corpus litigation. It is extremely rare for any defendant to be granted habeas relief, and this is doubly so for a defendant who faced the death penalty at trial.

James Freeman was charged in Illinois state court with the kidnapping and murder of Robert Green. Following arraignment, the court appointed public defender Kevin Foster as his lawyer. Shortly after the State announced that it intended to seek the death penalty, Freeman orally requested to proceed pro se. The trial court granted Freeman’s request, and Foster withdrew. During pretrial proceedings, Freeman permitted the public defender to briefly represent him in order to avoid transfer to a jail far from the court. After successfully avoiding the transfer, Freeman filed a formal motion titled “Motion to Proceed Pro Se and for Standby Counsel.”

The trial court held a hearing on Freeman’s motion and denied his request to proceed pro se. The court determined that Freeman lacked the education and legal abilities to represent himself. The court noted that this was a final decision. Freeman objected, saying that he was “not going to trial with this attorney” and walked out of the courtroom before the close of the hearing.

About a month later, a different public defender was appointed, trial commenced, and Freeman was convicted. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Freeman appealed the denial of his right to self-representation to the Illinois Appellate Court. The court denied his appeal on the grounds that he “did not unequivocally invoke his right to self-representation.” The Illinois Supreme Court denied review of the case.

Freeman then filed a pro se petition in federal court for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, reasserting his claim that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to self-representation. The federal district court denied his petition, ruling his claim was barred under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) because the Illinois Appellate Court ruled he did not unequivocally evoke his right to proceed pro se. Freeman appealed. In a concise but thorough opinion, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court and granted Freeman habeas relief.

The Court noted at the outset that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) allows a federal court to grant habeas relief only if the state court’s ruling “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” or if the adjudications of a prisoner’s case “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceedings.” The appellate court noted that the standard for relief is “difficult to meet.”

A decision is contrary to U.S. Supreme Court precedent “if it applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [the Supreme Court’s] cases, or if it confronts a set of facts that is materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme Court] but reaches a different result.” In Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), the Supreme Court “recognized that the Sixth Amendment implicitly entails a right of self-representation,” and held that the State may not “constitutionally hale a person into its criminal courts and there force a lawyer upon him, even when he insists that he wants to conduct his own defense.”

Reviewing the trial court’s decision to deny Freeman’s motion to proceed pro se, the Seventh Circuit found the ruling to be directly contrary to, and an unreasonable application of, Faretta’s clear teaching that a defendant’s “technical legal knowledge” is “not relevant to an assessment of his knowing exercise of the right to defend himself.” Indeed, the Court noted that “nothing distinguishes Freeman’s education and legal abilities from Faretta’s, which the Supreme Court found were irrelevant as to whether Faretta could represent himself.” Both lacked higher education and an understanding of the law.

The Court also found the Illinois Appellate Court’s ruling that Freeman’s motion to proceed pro se was not unequivocal to be contrary to, and an unreasonable application of, Faretta. The Illinois Appellate Court gave three reasons in support of its ruling, each of which the Seventh Circuit found lacking.

Initially, the Illinois Appellate Court found that Freeman took vacillating positions on his desire to represent himself, ostensibly because 10 months prior to his formal motion Freeman allowed representation for a short time. But this same set of circumstances existed in Faretta, and the Supreme Court found no vacillation there.

The Illinois Appellate Court next found that because Freeman’s motion included a request for stand-by counsel, it was not unequivocal. The Seventh Circuit flatly rejected that conclusion. The Court explained that Faretta “explicitly contemplates that a defendant can both invoke the right to self-representation and request stand-by counsel.”

Finally, the Illinois Appellate Court found that because Freeman’s request to proceed pro se was based on his dissatisfaction with his appointed counsel, it was not unequivocal. The Seventh Circuit pointed out that, to begin with, it was improper for the trial court to require Freeman to justify his decision beyond what was stated in his motion. The Court explained that dissatisfaction with counsel does not make a request to proceed pro se equivocal. In Faretta, the Supreme Court “found that Faretta’s request was unequivocal despite being primarily based on his dissatisfaction with his public defender.” Even if Freeman’s desire to proceed pro se were principally motivated by his dissatisfaction with counsel, it does not make his request equivocal.

Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit determined that Freeman’s requests to represent himself were clear and unequivocal. “Freeman did not waver as to whether he wanted to represent himself when the trial court addressed his clearly stated motion,” wrote the Court. “In fact, Freeman was so emphatic in his desire to proceed pro se that he left the courtroom before the end of the hearing due to the judge’s refusal to grant the motion.”

 In granting Freeman’s petition, the Seventh Circuit ordered that Freeman be either retried or promptly released.

See: Freeman v. Pierce, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 26647 (7th Cir. 2017). 

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