July 22, 2009
A Matter Of Autonomy
A capital criminal conviction was reversed by the Delaware Supreme Court due to a conflict in trial strategy between the defendant and counsel. Counsel had offered incriminating evidence at the guilt/innocence phase of the trial and had argued that the defendant was guilty but mentally ill. The defendant had objected to this approach and made his concerns known to the trial judge. The court here concluded that "defense counsel's strategy infringed upon the defendant's personal and fundamental constitutional rights" to control the objectives of the representation.
The story of the trial is told in exhaustive detail in the 103 page majority opinion. The situation calls to mind the Kaczynski case. The disagreement over, in essence, the plea surfaced prior to jury selection and the trial court declined to address the problem or question the defendant regarding his concerns. The prosecutors questioned whether defense counsel's approach was proper and sought vigorously a court-conducted inquiry of the defendant. The trial court denied the motions of the prosecutors in that regard. The court here takes the trial court to task for its failure to protect the rights of the defendant. As a result, there was "complete chaos at trial."
A dissent focuses on the difficulties encountered by lawyers defending death penalty cases. The dissent expresses concern that the majority decision will have a negative impact on the willingness of lawyers to undertake such cases as well as their ability to conduct the best defense. The dissent concludes that defense counsel's approach here did not affect the justness of the result and would affirm. (Mike Frisch)
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