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High court decision could affect Duncan case

A June U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting the right of mentally ill defendants to represent themselves in court could affect the case of Joseph Duncan, the notorious murderer and child molester who’s admitted to killing four members of a North Idaho family.

Though he has prominent capital defense lawyers assigned to represent him, Duncan told U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge in April that he instead wanted to act as his own lawyer, because, he said, “I don’t believe that they can ethically represent my ideology.” Lodge then ordered two mental evaluations to confirm that Duncan was competent to waive his constitutional right to a lawyer. As the judge now prepares to rule on that issue, defense attorneys this week filed a motion asking the judge to say what standard he’ll use, in light of the latest Supreme Court decision.

Before the high court reached its decision, the judge made it clear that case law dictated that if Duncan’s competent to undergo court proceedings at all, he’s competent to act as his own attorney. But the new decision, Indiana v. Edwards, opened the door to a different approach. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that “common sense” dictates that a mentally ill defendant might not be able to represent himself in court proceedings, though he could function just fine with the assistance of attorneys. “Insofar as a defendant’s lack of capacity threatens an improper conviction or sentence, self-representation in that exceptional context undercuts the most basic of the Constitution’s criminal law objectives, providing a fair trial,” Breyer wrote for the court’s majority. “The court said, ‘Let the trial judge decide,’” said Robert Bloom, a law professor at Boston College and an expert on constitutional rights and criminal procedures. “They gave a lot of discretion to the trial judge.”

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Scalia called the majority’s decision “extraordinarily vague,” and wrote, “Trial judges will have every incentive to make their lives easier … by appointing knowledgeable and literate counsel.” You can read my full story here at spokesmanreview.com.


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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