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Eighth Circuit Affirms Habeas Relief, Finds Arkansas Supreme Court Wrongly Denied Defendant’s Self-Representation Request

Elliott Finch repeatedly told the state trial court that he wanted to represent himself, both in open court and in writing. He was charged with multiple counts after he allegedly held his ex-girlfriend at gunpoint and threatened to kill her. He was arrested and went to trial on the charges.

Counsel was appointed, and Finch then requested to represent himself: “I want to represent myself, Your Honor,” he said at least three times at a hearing. “I don’t want no attorney.” He also filed a pro se motion to waive counsel and to proceed pro se in his own defense.

The trial court held a hearing on the motion and denied Finch’s request, “based on the seriousness of the offenses and the likelihood of [Finch] getting some serious time,” the court said. Finch was forced to go to trial with appointed counsel, and the jury found him guilty of all the charges except kidnapping. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 15 years and a fine.

He exhausted his state appeals, arguing that he was denied his right to self-representation and that he was prejudiced by juror misconduct. His appeal was denied by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which found that his request was not unequivocal and that the trial court could have concluded he engaged in conduct to prevent a “fair and orderly exposition of the issues.”

Finch then filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, raising the same claims as in his appeals. While the juror misconduct claim was denied, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas granted habeas relief on his denial of his right under the Sixth Amendment to represent himself. The court found that the state court’s decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts that empowered a federal court to override the state court’s decision and grant relief.

In particular, the district court disagreed with the state Supreme Court and found that Finch’s requests were clear and that he had not been disruptive. The court ordered the State to either release Finch or retry him within 120 days. The State appealed to the Eighth Circuit.

Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), a federal court cannot grant habeas corpus relief to a state prisoner unless the state court decision was an unreasonable application of “clearly established federal law” as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court or was an unreasonable determination of the facts. § 2254(d).

Although the district court found the state court unreasonably determined the facts of Finch’s self-representation requests, the Eighth Circuit determined that the state court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law to the facts of the case, viz., the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975). In that case, the Supreme Court held that a defendant may waive the right to counsel and proceed pro se if (1) the request is unequivocal, (2) the waiver in knowing, and (3) the defendant has not impeded the proceedings.

The Court observed that the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected the trial court’s reasons for denying Finch’s request to represent himself, i.e., “the seriousness of the offenses and the likelihood of [Finch] getting some serious time,” as “invalid” bases. However, the state Supreme Court “failed to identify any other basis for finding that Finch’s requests were equivocal,” the Court stated.

“Applying the historical facts of the record to Faretta, we conclude that Finch clearly and unequivocally invoked his right to self-representation. As soon as Finch manifested this clear and unequivocal invocation, the proceedings should have paused, and the trial court should have conducted a proper Faretta hearing,” the Court said. “The Arkansas Supreme Court’s finding to the contrary is objectively unreasonable.”

The Court next rejected the State’s argument that Finch’s conduct was disruptive such that it “would prevent the fair and orderly exposition of the issues” as an unreasonable determination under § 2254. The Court explained that a defendant can be denied his right to self-representation when he “engages in serious and obstructionist misconduct.” United States v. Kelley, 787 F.3d 915 (8th Cir. 2015). The defendant’s conduct must be extremely disruptive of the judicial process to satisfy that standard. United States v. Luscombe, 950 F.3d 1021 (8th Cir. 2020) (defendant defied court orders, argued with and interrupted witnesses repeatedly, and attempted to serve numerous harassing subpoenas on victims).

The Court characterized Finch’s conduct as “starkly mild compared to the level of obstructionist conduct” necessary to deny a defendant his right to self-representation. “While Finch’s behavior is not that of the model defendant, we can understand the frustration of an individual who is attempting to assert his Sixth Amendment right, only to be ignored and forced to participate in a defense that is not his.” Thus, the Court concluded that the Arkansas Supreme Court’s determination that Finch engaged in serious and obstructionist misconduct is “objectively unreasonable.”

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Related legal case

Finch v. Payne

 

 

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