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South Carolina Supreme Court Clarifies When Court Can Deny Right to Self-Representation; Orders New Trial

by Dale Chappell

“One who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Blackmun once opined.

Nevertheless, a circuit judge may deny a defendant’s request to be his own lawyer but only if the court finds he has not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to counsel, the Supreme Court of South Carolina held, clarifying when a court may deny such a request.

According to the circuit court, there was no question that Lamont Samuel was “bright enough, educated enough” to waive his right to counsel and represent himself at his murder trial. However, the court denied Samuel’s motion to represent himself, after the lawyer Samuel claimed was helping him told the court that he was not doing so. Concluding that Samuel had lied, the court determined that he had violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and was trying to manipulate the system. The court denied his motion to proceed pro se. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Samuel appealed, arguing the circuit judge erred in denying his right to self-representation.

The court of appeals affirmed. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the court of appeals’ decision.

In Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), the U.S. Supreme Court held that criminal defendants have a fundamental right under the Sixth Amendment to represent themselves. In order to invoke this right, the defendant’s request must be made knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. The only inquiry a court can make is whether the defendant is competent enough to waive the right to counsel. That is, the court’s determination cannot be based on whether the defendant has the ability to represent himself effectively. Technical legal knowledge is not relevant when granting or denying a defendant the right to proceed as his own lawyer. Such a determination is made at what is called a “Faretta hearing.”

The improper denial of a defendant’s knowing and voluntary request to proceed pro se constitutes a structural error requiring automatic reversal and a new trial. State v. Rivera, 741 S.E.2d 694 (S.C. 2013).

In the present case, the circuit judge found that Samuel clearly understood he was knowingly and voluntarily waiving his right to counsel, the Supreme Court determined. That determination alone is sufficient for a defendant to be permitted to proceed pro se.

The problem, the Supreme Court said, was when the circuit court called the lawyer who was supposedly helping Samuel to the stand at the hearing to confirm that he was truly helping him. Whether the lawyer was advising or would be available to coach Samuel “relates to his competence to represent himself,” which is completely irrelevant to the issue of whether Samuel effectively invoked his right to represent himself. Because the attorney’s testimony was irrelevant to the issue of whether Samuel effectively invoked his right to proceed pro se, the circuit judge erred in relying upon the testimony to deny Samuel’s request.

Further, the circuit court erred by holding Samuel to the ethical rules imposed on lawyers. “Not only has this Court never held that a criminal defendant acting pro se must comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct, but we are unaware of any jurisdiction, which has explicitly required criminal defendants to comply with ethical rule governing lawyers,” the Court said.

Samuel’s “misleading” testimony that he had a lawyer’s help was not an attempt to “beat the system”; rather, it was an attempt “to waive the benefits of counsel,” the Court concluded. Moreover, it was not even supposed to be a factor at all.

The Supreme Court ruled that “Samuel made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary request to proceed pro se as required by Faretta, and he should have been given the opportunity to represent himself.” Accordingly, the Court reversed the court of appeals’ opinion and remanded to the circuit court for a new trial. See: State v. Samuel, 2018 S.C. LEXIS 11 (2018).  


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State v. Samuel



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