Court: Troubled defendant still has a right to reject insanity plea

A federal appeals court said a criminal defendant has a right to reject an insanity plea, even if he is mentally ill and his alternative defense – demonic possession – is bound to fail. In so finding, the court ordered a new trial for Johathan Lee Read in a 2014 prison stabbing in Phoenix. (Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A man who claimed he repeatedly stabbed his cellmate because demons drove him to do it will get a new trial after a federal appeals court ruled his lawyer wrongly pressed an insanity defense against his wishes.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the attorney violated Jonathan Lee Read’s Sixth Amendment rights by entering the insanity plea on his behalf in the 2014 stabbing of Read’s cellmate at the Federal Correctional Institute in Phoenix.

Read wanted to represent himself, but the judge in his case appointed an attorney to represent him because Read’s actions were “decidedly bizarre” and “his arguments in defense to the charges against him are nonsensical.”

But the 9th Circuit said that decision was made without the benefit of a 2018 Supreme Court case that said while attorneys are responsible for strategy in a case, they are still obligated to adhere to the defendant’s objectives.

“The trial judge here undoubtedly faced a difficult dilemma,” Circuit Judge Michael Daly Hawkins wrote in Thursday’s opinion. “Whether to permit a defendant, competent and allowed self-representation but clearly mentally ill, to eschew a plausible defense of insanity in favor of one based in delusion and certain to fail.”

Read’s defense of demonic possession may have been “wholly ineffective,” as the trial judge said, but it was what he wanted.

University of Arizona law professor Barbara E. Bergman said the appeals court did the right thing. Bergman helped file a friend-of-the-court brief from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on behalf of the defendant in McCoy v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruling that Read’s case turned on.

“The Sixth Amendment provides the right to the effective assistance of counsel,” Bergman said, before pointing to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion in McCoy. “But, as Ginsburg said, you (the attorney) are still an assistant, and the defendant still gets to make the decision.”

Read was indicted in 2015 on one count of assault resulting in serious bodily injury and one count of assault with a dangerous weapon with intent to do bodily harm after stabbing his cellmate 13 times with a homemade knife on May 31, 2014. Read later said he had no memory of the attack on his cellmate, with whom there had been no reported problems, according to court records.

He was first ruled incompetent to stand trial, then found competent after another evaluation four months later. When his attorney said he would pursue an insanity plea, Read underwent another evaluation.

Among other things, Read said he had stomach pain due to someone using a voodoo doll against him. One doctor referred to Read’s “delusional thoughts regarding Christianity, Satan and demonization” and that he appeared “to respond to internal stimuli.”

In each of the three evaluations, Read was found to have a schizotypical personality and a “cannabis-use disorder.”

The trial court at first agreed to let Read represent himself, then reversed itself and reappointed an attorney for him over Read’s objections. The court said the Constitution gives judges the right to give representation to people who “still suffer from severe mental illness to the point where they are not competent to conduct trial proceedings by themselves.”

The 9th Circuit upheld the judge’s right to appoint that attorney, but not to let the attorney enter a plea his client explicitly rejected. It reversed Read’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

Attorneys in the case declined comment. But Bergman welcomed the ruling.

“We manage the trial, we look at what kind of questions to ask,” Bergman said of an attorney’s role in a case. “We cannot infringe on the core rights of the client.”