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Criminal Practice – Constitutional – Right to Self-Representation – Third-Grade Reading Level – Knowing Choice

State v. Lane (Lawyers Weekly No. 11-06-0265, 55 pp.) (Robin E. Hudson, J.) (Barbara Jackson, J., not participating) Appealed from Wayne County Superior Court. (Gary E. Trawick, J.) N.C. S. Ct. Click here to read the full text of the opinion.

Holding: Even though defendant read at the third-grade level (or possibly kindergarten level, according to the trial court) and suffered from several mental disorders, he was nevertheless competent to choose to represent himself.

We find no error in defendant’s convictions of first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, first-degree statutory rape, first-degree statutory sex offense, and indecent liberties. We uphold imposition of the death penalty.

Defendant maintains that the undisputed facts show that, as articulated in Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164 (2008), he comes within the category of “gray area” or “borderline competent” defendants who are competent to stand trial but nonetheless lack the capacity to conduct trial proceedings without the assistance of counsel.

The competence that is required of a defendant seeking to waive his right to counsel is the competence to waive the right, not the competence to represent himself, meaning that a criminal defendant’s ability to represent himself has no bearing upon his competence to choose self-representation.

Edwards involved a criminal defendant whom a state court found mentally competent to stand trial if represented by counsel but not mentally competent to conduct that trial himself. In Edwards the trial court refused to allow the defendant to represent himself, so the court was faced with whether the state may deny a defendant’s constitutional right to proceed pro se in those circumstances. Defining such a defendant as one whose competence falls into the “gray area” between the ruling in Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960) – a minimal constitutional requirement that measures a defendant’s ability to stand trial – and a somewhat higher standard that measures mental fitness for another legal purpose, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its analysis and holding from Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389 (1993), that a gray-area defendant may be permitted to represent himself.

Nonetheless, the court also concluded that the U.S. Constitution permits a state to limit that defendant’s self-representation right by insisting upon representation by counsel at trial-on the ground that the defendant lacks the mental capacity to conduct his trial defense unless represented. In such circumstances judges may take realistic account of the particular defendant’s mental capacities by asking whether a defendant who seeks to conduct his own defense at trial is mentally competent to do so.

All criminal defendants, if competent to stand trial, enjoy the constitutional right to self-representation, though that right is not absolute. If a defendant, after being found competent, seeks to represent himself, the trial court has two choices:  (1) it may grant the motion to proceed pro se, allowing the defendant to exercise his constitutional right to self-representation, if and only if the trial court is satisfied that he has knowingly and voluntarily waived his

corresponding right to assistance of counsel, pursuant to Moran; or (2) it may deny the motion, thereby denying the defendant’s constitutional right to self-representation because the defendant falls into the “gray area” and is therefore subject to the “competency limitation” described in Edwards.

The trial court must make findings of fact to support its determination that the defendant is unable to carry out the basic tasks needed to present his own defense without the help of counsel.

Even before Edwards, North Carolina had established a similar framework through statute and precedent from this court.

Defendant was never been denied his constitutional right to self-representation because the trial court allowed his motion to proceed pro se. As such, the Supreme Court’s holding in Edwards, that the state may deny that right if a defendant falls into the “gray area” of competence, does not guide our decision here.

Rather, after defendant was found competent to stand trial under the Dusky standard, and pursuant to the law as set forth in Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), Moran, State v. LeGrande, 346 N.C. 718, 487 S.E.2d 727 (1997), and G.S. § 15A-1242, before allowing defendant’s motion to represent himself, the trial court properly conducted a thorough inquiry and determined that defendant’s waiver of his constitutional right to counsel was knowing and voluntary.

The trial court’s inquiry was sufficient to support its determination that defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to assistance of counsel and chose instead to exercise his constitutional right to self-representation. The orders reflect that the trial court took into full account all the expert witness testimony concerning defendant’s functional illiteracy and mental disorders and nonetheless concluded that these conditions did not affect his ability to make the decision to proceed pro se.

Defendant was repeatedly advised that discharging counsel would likely harm his defense, particularly in light of his limited reading and writing skills, yet he expressed time and again his wish to proceed pro se. The trial court questioned defendant several times about the reasons underpinning that desire.  Although we may disagree with defendant’s calculation that a sentence of death is preferable to a lifetime of confinement, we recognize that he reached his decision for his own personal reasons and through his own rational thought process, as he retained the right to do.

Defendant was able to respond to the trial court’s inquiries in a manner that indicated that he (1) understood the charges and proceedings against him and the range of possible punishments, (2) had been clearly advised of his right to counsel, and (3) appreciated the consequences of his decision to waive that right.

Defendant was well aware of his limitations, and the record establishes that he knew what he was doing and his choice was made with eyes open. The trial court properly allowed defendant’s motion to proceed pro se.

Expert Witness

Defendant is an alcoholic who did not drink alcohol on the day of his confession. Neuropharmacologist Dr. Wilkie Wilson would have testified for the defense about the effects of withdrawal on the brain of an alcoholic. The trial court refused to allow Dr. Wilson to testify.

Dr. Wilson admitted that “what [defendant] said I have no way of evaluating” and that he “can only tell you that people that are going through alcohol withdrawal have very disturbed brain function.” In response to a question from defense counsel, Dr. Wilson said he did not have the expertise to determine whether defendant’s confession was false based on defendant’s being in a state of alcohol withdrawal when the confession was made; he also averred that he was not there to offer any testimony to that effect.

At the conclusion of voir dire, the trial court ruled that Dr. Wilson’s testimony was not relevant during the guilt- innocence phase of defendant’s trial because Dr. Wilson could not “state opinions of the defendant’s mental condition at the time of the interrogation.”

The trial court observed that Dr. Wilson was unable to say if defendant’s confession was true or false or whether it was induced, and an earlier pretrial order by another judge had already determined the confession to be voluntary.  As such, and emphasizing again that Dr. Wilson had repeatedly stated that he could not “render an opinion as to whether the confession was false or true” or what defendant’s condition was at the time he made his confession, the trial court excluded the testimony.

Defense counsel argued that the proffered testimony was relevant to the jury’s consideration of “the overall reliability of the confession.” However, Dr. Wilson could offer no opinion about the severity of any symptoms defendant may have been experiencing at the time of his statement, nor did he indicate that those symptoms-if they occurred-would have made defendant more susceptible to suggestion or somehow caused him to confess falsely to raping and murdering a five-year-old girl.

Dr. Wilson repeatedly stated that he could not offer an opinion whether this particular defendant, at the time he made his confession, was experiencing any specific symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Rather, he could only say that defendant was an extremely heavy drinker and that heavy drinkers generally experience certain effects on their nervous systems when withdrawing from alcohol.

Given earlier evidence from detectives about defendant’s condition, as well as testimony from defendant’s stepmother concerning his alcoholism, the jury could already assess how withdrawal from alcohol affected the reliability of defendant’s confession, if at all.

In sum, Dr. Wilson’s testimony would not have helped the trier of fact understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue and would instead have likely suggested that defendant was definitively experiencing particular withdrawal symptoms.

Furthermore, Dr. Wilson could not testify regarding the existence of a direct connection between any such symptoms and the reliability of defendant=s confession. Accordingly, this testimony was properly excluded by the trial court under N.C. R. Evid. 401.

Having the expert testify as requested by defendant would have tended to confuse, rather than help, the jury.

Given defendant’s failure to comply with the state’s repeated discovery requests or the trial court’s discovery orders regarding expert witness reports, the trial court also did not err in excluding Dr. Wilson’s testimony as a discovery sanction.


Defendant’s ex-wife testified on voir dire that defendant kidnapped her, drove her to a wooded area, kept her there using physical threats and a knife, and coerced her into sexual activity based on her fear for her safety. She also testified that there had been physical and sexual violence during their marriage. This testimony supports the trial court’s decision not to instruct the jury on the G.S. § 15A-2000(f)(1) mitigating circumstance (that defendant “has no significant history of prior criminal activity”).

No error.

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