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Blood smeared notes, threats, sent to lawyer

Despite threatening and sending blood-smeared notes to his lawyer, a man has won the right to have his case heard again with a new lawyer.

user iconOlivia Collings 16 June 2009 The Bar
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DESPITE threatening his court appointed lawyer and sending blood smeared notes, a US man has won the right to have his case heard again with a new lawyer. 

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the man, charged with beating up a prison guard, must be re-trialed as he was wrongly denied a new lawyer after the judge in his case ruled that if he's going to send a threatening, blood-smeared letter to his old lawyer, he would have to represent himself


While judges can strip defendants of counsel, reports, they should do so only as an absolute last resort after an extensive hearing. 

While concluding that a defendant's conduct could conceivably be so serious as to forfeit the right to counsel, the court said that a judge cannot make that decision without first following certain procedural safeguards. 

Over the span of a year, the defendant filed several requests with the court indicating his dissatisfaction with his court-appointed attorney and requesting a new one. Shortly before he was to stand trial, he filed another such motion, this time attaching an affidavit in which he disclosed that he had sent a blood-smeared letter to his attorney threatening to harm him and his family if he did not withdraw. 

The affidavit said that if the judge did not allow his motion, then he would "physically assault, spit, kick, head-butt, etc", his counsel. 

He added: "This isn't any joke, I'm very serious! I have major mental health deficiencies, and present very serious anger management issues." 

At a hearing on the action, the trial judge agreed to allow the attorney to withdraw. However, the judge then refused to appoint a new lawyer, ruling that the defendant, through his serious misconduct and threats, had forfeited his right to court-appointed counsel. The defendant represented himself at trial and was found guilty. 

The SJC, in an ruling written by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, said that a defendant "may engage in misconduct that is so serious that it may justify the loss of his right to counsel".

But because the consequences are so severe, she wrote, the sanction of forfeiture should not be imposed "until the defendant has had a full and fair opportunity at a hearing to offer evidence as to the totality of the circumstances that may bear on the question".

Finding that the hearing in this case fell short of that requirement, the SJC reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. "The defendant must, if he so requests, be appointed counsel for his retrial," the court said. 

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