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GREGORY JOHNSTONE (12/24/86)

decided: December 24, 1986.

GREGORY JOHNSTONE, PETITIONER-APPELLANT, WALTER J. KELLY, SUPERINTENDENT, ATTICA CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE


Appeal from a judgment of the District Court for the Southern District of New York (Charles L. Brieant, Jr., Chief Judge) denying a petition for a writ of habeas corpus challenging petitioner's state court conviction. Reversed and remanded.

Author: Newman

Before: VAN GRAAFEILAND, MESKILL, and NEWMAN, Circuit Judges.

JON O. NEWMAN, Circuit Judge.

This appeal presents the issue whether denial of defendant's constitutional right to represent himself at a criminal trial can be harmless error. The issue arises on an appeal by Gregory Johnstone from a judgment of the District Court for the Southern District of New York (Charles L. Brieant, Jr., Chief Judge) denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus to challenge his state court conviction. Although concluding that the state trial court infringed Johnstone's Sixth Amendment right to self-representation, the District Court dismissed Johnstone's petition upon a finding that the constitutional violation was harmless error. 633 F. Supp. 1245, 1250-51 (1986). Because the District Court erred in applying a harmless error test to a violation of the right to self-representation, we reverse the District Court's decision and remand with instructions to order petitioner's release unless the State promptly affords him a new trial.

Background

In 1981, the State of New York indicted Johnstone on arson and burglary charges in connection with the destruction of an apartment building in New York City. His first trial in the Supreme Court of New York ended a mistrial when the jury failed to agree on a verdict. At that time Johnstone was represented by Ira Van Leer, a court-appointed attorney.

On January 4, 1982, two days before the scheduled start of his second trial, Johnstone appeared before Judge Burton G. Roberts to request that Atty. Van Leer be relieved as his counsel and that new counsel be appointed. Judge Roberts denied Johnstone's requests. On January 5, 1982, Johnstone appeared before Judge Arnold G. Fraiman, the judge presiding over his second trial, to renew his request for different appointed counsel. At that time, Johnstone expressed his displeasure with Atty. Van Leer's handling of the case, in particular, be objected to Atty. Van Leer's filing of a notice of an insanity defense in the first trial without consulting Johnstone. Judge Fraiman found these grounds inadequate to justify appointment of new counsel. Upon learning that he could not obtain new counsel, Johnstone stated that he preferred to conduct his own defense rather than be represented by Atty. Van Leer. Judge Fraiman inquired into Johnstone's age, education, employment, and familiarity with legal proceedings. Judge Fraiman then contrasted Johnstone's abilities with those of Atty. Van Leer, pointing out that Van Leer had avoided a conviction in the first trial. Emphasizing Johnstone's comparative youth, lack of legal training, and minimal experience with legal proceedings, Judge Fraiman repeatedly warned Johnstone of the grave risks of defending himself against serious charges.

Despite Judge Fraiman's stern warnings, Johnstone persisted in his request to proceed pro se. Johnstone stated that he had studied the indictment and had carefully read the papers in his case each night. Upon the court's direction to Van Leer to continue his representation of Johnstone, Van Leer amplified Johnstone's remarks, noting that "[Johnstone] is intelligent, he reads all the minutes. He has all the minutes. He can proceed." Judge Fraiman acknowledged that Johnstone was competent to stand trial; nonetheless, he concluded that Johnstone was "not qualified" to represent himself because he lacked "the requisite education, background or training or experience." Judge Fraiman found that "[Johnstone] is eighteen, he has scarcely any formal education so far as I can ascertain, he has no known occupation and he has virtually no previous exposure to legal procedures, except for the first trial."

At the commencement of trial on January 6, 1982, Johnstone asked to make the opening statement and to begin cross-examination of the witnesses. Judge Fraiman ruled that petitioner could not conduct the defense himself and directed Van Leer to make Johnstone's opening statement. Van Leer conducted Johnstone's defense during the presentation of evidence. At the close of evidence, Johnstone asked to make the closing argument. After vehemently discouraging Johnstone from attempting his own summation, Judge Fraiman allowed Johnstone to present his summation himself. The jury subsequently convicted Johnstone.

Upon exhaustion of state court remedies, Johnstone filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254 (1982) with the District Court. Chief Judge Brieant found that Johnstone had knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to counsel. Although concluding that the trial judge violated Johnstone's Sixth Amendment right to proceed pro se, the District Judge held that such error was harmless and therefore refused to grant the writ. 633 F. Supp. at 1250-51.

Discussion

We agree with Chief Judge Brieant that the state trial court violated Johnstone's Sixth Amendment right to proceed pro se. In Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 45 L. Ed. 2d 562, 95 S. Ct. 2525 (1975), the Supreme Court declared that this right may be exercised by all criminal defendants who knowingly, voluntarily, and unequivocally waive their right to appointed counsel. Id. at 835-36. The record in the present case indicates that Johnstone was competent to stand trial and that he clearly sought to represent himself after being duly warned of the risks of doing so. Nevertheless, Judge Fraiman denied his request on the ground that Johnstone lacked the "requisite education, background or training or experience." Faretta imposes no such qualifications on the right to defend pro se.

The State of New York contends that Johnstone sought to represent himself merely as a threat designed to obtain different appointed counsel.*fn1 Though the record indicates that Johnstone preferred to have new counsel appointed, it also indicates that Johnstone steadfastly sought to represent himself despite numerous warnings from Judge Fraiman of the risks of forgoing counsel.*fn2 We agree with Chief Judge Brieant's conclusion that Johnstone's persistent requests to represent himself satisfied Faretta's requirement of a knowing, voluntary, and unequivocal waiver of the right to appointed counsel.

We are not unmindful of trial judges' concern with ensuring that criminal defendants receive adequate legal representation. Although the Constitution prohibits courts from requiring criminal defendants to be defended by counsel, see Faretta v. California, supra, 422 U.S. at 833, it does not foreclose trial courts from using less overbearing means of ensuring that pro se defendants have adequate legal representation. In cases in which the trial judge fears that a pro se defendant lacks the ability to defend himself adequately, the judge can appoint counsel to assist the defendant in his pro se defense. See Faretta v. California, supra, 422 U.S. at 834-35 n. 46; McKaskle v. Wiggins, 465 U.S. 168, ...


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