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United States v. Bernard, No. 11-4054

Decided on: February 28, 2013

Michael Defonte Bernard appealed the district court’s decision to allow him to represent himself at trial, despite his questionable mental capacity. Bernard argued that Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164 (2008), required that, where a borderline competent defendant seeks to represent himself at trial, the court must conduct an additional inquiry and hold the defendant to a higher standard of competency. The Fourth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the district court’s decision.

Bernard suffered from a long history of mental illness and drug abuse. A grand jury indicted Bernard on various charges. After a court-ordered evaluation, a government psychologist recommended that Bernard be found incompetent to stand trial because of his schizophrenia, paranoid delusions, and disorganized thought processes. Subsequently, a second psychologist recommended that Bernard be found competent to stand trial because his medications enabled him to understand the proceedings and assist his counsel. Bernard then made a request to proceed pro se, which the court granted, provided that Bernard have standby counsel. At trial, Bernard made no objections during the Government’s case-in-chief, failed to question two witnesses, and failed to call witnesses on his own behalf. The jury deliberated for only 12 minutes before finding Bernard guilty. At sentencing, Bernard was fully represented by former standby counsel, and was ultimately sentenced to 180 months imprisonment.

Bernard raised several arguments for the first time on appeal, thus the Fourth Circuit reviewed for plain error. Bernard could waive his right to counsel and represent himself, provided that certain requirements were met, but the right to self-representation must be weighed against the government’s interest in ensuring integrity and efficacy at trial. In Edwards, 554 U.S. at 177, the court recognized that the trial court is in the best position to assess mental competency. Edwards held that “the Constitution permits States to insist upon representation by counsel for those competent enough to stand trial…but who still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves.” Id. at 175–76. Edwards does not compel the State to insist Bernard proceed with counsel, but rather outlines a permissive rule. Bernard argued that the court knew of his “severe mental illness,” and thus should have acted, pursuant to Edwards, to deny him the right to proceed pro se. However, the Fourth Circuit noted that the district court satisfied itself at the start of and throughout trial that Bernard was competent, and thus did not commit plain error. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.

Circuit Judge Diaz dissented on the grounds that the district court was unaware of the discretion afforded by Edwards to apply a higher mental competency standard when deciding whether Bernard could waive his right to counsel. The district court thus abused its discretion by reaching a permissible result it believed to be mandatory.

Full Opinion

-Michelle Theret