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Tenth Circuit Vacates Conviction, Rules Waiver of Trial Counsel Not Knowingly Made

Randy Hamett, a carpenter by trade, was charged with kidnapping and several firearm offenses in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. He was appointed counsel and elected to go to trial, during which he requested to forgo counsel and represent himself. The trial judge then held a hearing and warned Hamett of the risks of trial without a lawyer. When the judge asked if he understood the elements of the charges the Government had to prove, Hamett told the judge he did not and asked for those elements. The judge, however, refused to give them to him and said they were in the jury instructions; the judge also said he was not going to give Hamett time to read them.

The judge allowed Hamett to proceed pro se, and the jury convicted him of every count. He was then sentenced to 20 years in federal prison without parole, well below his Guidelines range but admittedly a “life” sentence for Hamett, who was 62 at the time. He appealed and argued that his waiver of counsel was not knowingly made because the judge failed to apprise him of the elements of the charges against him.

While a criminal defendant has the right under the Sixth Amendment to counsel, he also has the right to represent himself. The Supreme Court has held that a waiver of counsel must be knowingly and voluntarily made. This means that the defendant must be “aware of the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation, so that the record will establish that he knows what he is doing and his choice is made with eyes open.” Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975). A district court does this by what’s called a “Faretta hearing” and must advise of (1) the nature of the charges, (2) the statutory offenses faced, (3) the range of punishment, (4) possible defenses to the charges, and (5) “all other facts essential to a broad understanding of the whole matter.”

In the present case, the trial judge not only failed to advise of the elements of the charges, but he refused to do so.

The Tenth Circuit rejected the Government’s argument that Hamett must have been aware of the elements from his arraignment and when he had a lawyer. No assumptions can be made about the knowing nature of a waiver, the Court said, and the warnings under Faretta must be specific. General warnings aren’t enough, the Court explained.

The Court also rejected the notion that because Hamett eventually did learn the elements and did an adequate job of defending against them that his waiver was knowing. The Court recognized that whether actions taken by a defendant after a waiver of counsel could render a waiver knowingly made is an open question in the Tenth Circuit. But it said that it was “dubious” as to whether this would matter. It’s the defendant’s understanding at the time of the waiver that counts, not anything that happens after the waiver, the Court instructed.

And even if Hamett’s previous lawyers had advised him of every factor to satisfy the Faretta hearing requirements, it was the trial judge who was required to ensure Hamett’s understanding of those factors, the Court said. The fact that standby counsel was appointed to help Hamett during the trial also did not cure the trial judge’s failure to cover these essential factors, the Court said.

While there may be some exceptions to a proper Faretta hearing, the Court noted that none existed here. For example, some exceptions have been made where the criminal defendant was a lawyer himself or where the defendant showed that he understood criminal procedure by filing motions before the waiver. But Hamett, a carpenter and equipment operator, was not trained in the law and did not show any signs of being knowledgeable of the law, the Court noted.

“In sum, considering the rigorous restrictions on the information that must be conveyed to a defendant before permitting him to waive counsel at trial, we conclude that the district court’s warnings did not adequately ensure that Mr. Hamett was aware of the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation,” the Court concluded.

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Related legal case

United States v. Hamett



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