The opinion of the court was delivered by: DAVID LARIMER, Chief Judge, District
Petitioner Willie Spirles ("Spirles") filed this petition pro
se for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254
challenging his conviction in Monroe County Court on four counts of
robbery and two counts of grand larceny. For the reasons set forth below,
Spirles' § 2254 petition is dismissed.
FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On June 7, 1996, Spirles and two confederates entered the A-Plus
Mini-Mart on South Clinton Avenue in the City of Rochester at about 2:27
a.m. One associate fired a shot into the ceiling and the other ordered
the cashier to empty the cash register. Meanwhile, Spirles pushed another
employee to the floor and demanded that he hand over his money. As the
three perpetrators fled the mini-mart with the cash drawer, $10, and a
cigarette lighter, the one with the gun fired another shot into the wall.
The entire robbery was captured on the store's surveillance camera.
A week later, police officers responded to a domestic-violence
complaint at the residence of Spirles' girlfriend, Crystal Alexander
("Alexander"), because Spirles had beaten and pistol-whipped her.
Alexander, for whom the police happened to have an outstanding bench
warrant, was arrested at that time. After her arrest, she told the police
that she had driven the get-away car in the
A-Plus Mini-Mart heist, and she identified the three perpetrators
of the robbery, including Spirles. After being picked up for questioning,
Spirles admitted his involvement in the robbery.
At one of his first appearances before Monroe County Court Judge Nancy
Smith, Spirles objected to being represented by a Monroe County Assistant
Public Defender who had been assigned to the case. Spirles gave no reason
for his dissatisfaction and Judge Smith advised him that he could hire
his own lawyer if he wished to do so, but a new lawyer would not be
appointed for him. At a later proceeding, Spirles again objected to being
represented by the Assistant Public Defender, and requested that he act
as his own attorney. Following a hearing held January 22, 1997, Spirles
was allowed to represent himself at trial, although assigned counsel
remained throughout trial as standby counsel.
On February 27, 1997, Spirles was convicted on all charges and was
sentenced as a second violent felony offender to concurrent terms of 25
years for each robbery count and terms of 2 to 4 years on the grand
larceny counts. Spirles, represented by counsel, appealed his conviction
to the Appellate Division, Fourth Department. Spirles also filed a
supplemental pro se brief raising additional arguments. The
Fourth Department unanimously affirmed his conviction September 29, 2000.
The Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal on April 6, 2001. This
federal habeas corpus petition followed.
Spirles raises one claim for habeas relief: that the trial judge did
not conduct a sufficiently searching inquiry into his ability to
represent himself at trial. Spirles claims now that "certain facts" about
his "mental, emotional and educational background" should have been
developed at the January 22nd hearing. Petitioner's
Memorandum of Law, Docket ("Dkt") #10 at 2.
Under the Sixth Amendment, the accused in all criminal prosecutions is
guaranteed "the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his
defence." U.S. Const, amend. VI. Each defendant is also afforded the
correlative right to dispense with legal assistance and represent
himself. See Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 818-34 (1975);
accord, e.g., Torres v. United States, 140 F.3d 392, 401 (2d
Cir. 1998). Because a defendant who decides to act pro se
abandons the traditional benefits associated with professional legal
representation, the district court must ensure that the accused makes his
decision "`knowingly and intelligently.'" Torres, 140 F.3d at
401 (quoting Faretta, 422 U.S. at 835). When a defendant
knowingly, voluntarily, and unequivocally elects to proceed pro
se, however, a court is bound by the Constitution to honor that
election, regardless of how "suicidal" it may appear to be. Johnstone
v. Kelly, 633 F. Supp. 1245, 1248 (S.D.N.Y.), rev'd on other
grounds, 808 F.2d 214 (2d Cir. 1986).
Although there is no "talismanic procedure" to determine an effective
waiver, see United States v. Tracy, 12 F.3d 1186, 1994 (2d Cir.
1993), the trial court should engage the defendant in an on-the-record
colloquy to ensure that he fully comprehends the ramifications of his
decision. See id. at 1192; see also Torres, 140 F.3d at
401. The judge should consider "`whether the defendant understood that he
had a choice between proceeding pro se and with assigned
counsel, whether he understood the advantages of having one trained in
the law to represent him, and whether the defendant had the capacity to
make an intelligent choice.'" United States v. Hurtado,
47 F.3d 577, 583 (2d Cir. 1995) (quoting United States v. Calabro,
467 F.2d 973, 985 (2d Cir. 1972) (internal quotation marks and citation
omitted)). In other words, the court must be convinced that the accused
was aware of the dangers associated with self-representation and that his
decision to conduct his own defense was made "with eyes open."
Faretta, 422 U.S. at 835.
Although Spirles vigorously argued before the trial court that he
should be allowed to proceed pro se, he now contends that the
trial court erred in granting his request. The record reflects that Judge
Smith carefully questioned Spirles about his education, background and
familiarity with court proceedings. She also repeatedly warned him of the
risk of proceeding pro se. There is no error here warranting
habeas corpus relief.
Spirles, who had eleven years of schooling but no GED, worked as a
custodian two years prior to his arrest and had held down "odd jobs,"
such as plumbing, doing electrical work, and cleaning houses. January 22,
1997 Hearing Transcript ("1/22/97 Tr.") at 4. Asked what type of work he
was qualified to do, Spirles replied, "Well, I'm qualified to do anything
you [sic] set your mind to[.]" Id. at 5. When the court asked if
he could "read, write and speak and understand the English language,"
Spirles replied, "[e]nough to comprehend." Id at 3. He testified
that he was not suffering from, nor had he suffered from in the past, any
mental or physical ...