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United States v. Beckton, No. 13-4037

Decided: January 21, 2014

Defendant Reggie Beckton was convicted of two counts of bank robbery. Beckton appeals on two grounds: (1) that the district court erred in refusing to permit him to testify in narrative form; and (2) that the district court erred in forcing him to choose between his right to testify in his own defense and his right to represent himself.

In the months leading up to his trial, Beckton was unable to find a satisfactory public defender. Beckton alleged that his first public defender presented a conflict of interest. The court allowed Beckton’s second public defender to withdraw after Beckton made crude sexual remarks. Finally, a week before trial, Beckton made an oral motion to disqualify his third public defender on the grounds of a conflict of interest. The court denied his motion, finding that Beckton’s complaints did not constitute a conflict of interest. The court similarly denied Beckton’s motion to postpone his trial. After denying both motions, Beckton stated that he wished to proceed pro se. The court acknowledged Beckton’s right to do so, but strongly cautioned him against it, warning him that he would be held to the same standards as an experienced attorney. Nevertheless, Beckton insisted that he continue on his own behalf. The court allowed him to proceed pro se with the third public defender serving as standby counsel.

Beckton’s trial was riddled with evidentiary errors and ad hominem attacks against the government and the prosecutor. At the close of the prosecution’s case, Beckton stated that he wished to testify in narrative form. The court denied his request, requiring Beckton to both ask and answer the question, to afford the government an opportunity to object. The court denied Beckton’s request to draft questions for the public defender to ask, insisting that Beckton could either choose to continue on his own or avail himself of the public defender, but not both. During testimony, Beckton slipped into narrative form on a couple of occasions, accused the court of “favoring one party,” and asked why he had to “keep quiet about this corruption.” After several such outbursts, the court declared the evidence closed and the jury convicted Beckton on both counts of bank robbery. Beckton appealed.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction. First, the court held that the district court’s requirement that Beckton proceed in question-answer format was not an abuse of discretion. Federal Rule of Evidence 611(a) gives the district court considerable discretion to control the mode of examining witnesses and presenting evidence “to make those procedures effective for determining the truth.” Furthermore, the court may place any restrictions on a defendant’s right to testify are not “arbitrary or disproportionate to the purposes they are designed to serve.” The Fourth Circuit acknowledged that the pro se litigant’s questioning himself was awkward and uncomfortable, but nonetheless held that the requirement was not an abuse of discretion. Moreover, Beckton had the opportunity to avail himself of the assistance of counsel and repeatedly refused. Second, the Fourth Circuit similarly held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in forcing Bectkon to choose between his right to represent himself and the right to testify in narrative form in response to questions from counsel controlling his case. The district court gave Beckton the opportunity to exercise his right to testify and his right to represent himself, but Beckton lost that opportunity when he repeatedly defied the court’s instruction on using the question and answer format proscribed. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction.

Full Opinion

– Wesley B. Lambert