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Seventh Circuit: SCOW decision on self-representation is “flatly contrary” to Faretta

Rashaad A. Imani v. William Pollard, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals No. 14-3407, 2016 WL 3434673, 6/22/16

Imani tried to exercise his right to self-representation under Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), but the Wisconsin trial judge prevented him from doing so. In State v. Imani, 2010 WI 66, 326 Wis. 2d 179, 786 N.W.2d 40, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the trial judge properly found Imani wasn’t competent to represent himself and that he hadn’t made a knowing and voluntary choice to represent himself. The Seventh Circuit now holds that even under the stringent standard for federal habeas relief, SCOW’s decision was wrong, and Imani is entitled to a new trial.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court decision was flatly contrary to Faretta and its progeny in three distinct ways. First, the state court in effect required Imani to persuade the trial judge that he was making a knowing and voluntary decision to waive the right to counsel when it was actually the judge’s job to make sure that Imani’s waiver would be knowing and voluntary. Second, the state court required Imani to persuade the trial judge that he had a good reason to choose self-representation. Under Faretta, however, a defendant’s reason for choosing to represent himself is immaterial. Defending pro se will almost always be foolish, but the defendant has the right to make that choice, for better or worse. Third, the state court imposed a competence standard much more demanding than Faretta and its progeny allow, as if the issue were whether Imani was an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Imani’s education and communication abilities are materially indistinguishable from those in Faretta, and the Wisconsin courts identified no mental illness or impairment that might have rendered Imani incompetent as allowed by Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164 (2008). ….

(Slip op. at 6).

The court goes into further detail for its reasoning (slip op. at 6-13), and that discussion is a must-read for anyone litigating a self-representation claim. Much of the  Seventh Circuit’s reasoning was anticipated in the criticisms in our post on SCOW’s decision, which aptly characterized the pragmatic effect of the decision as “severely limiting self-representation.”

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