SC Supreme Court Reverses Court of Appeals: Trial Court Erred by Denying Defendant the Right to Represent Himself

State v. Lamont Antonio Samuel (No. 2105-002401)

In this case the SC Supreme Court clarifies the proper scope of a circuit judge’s inquiry under Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), when a criminal defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waives his right to counsel and requests to proceed pro se. Prior to his trial for murder, Lamont Antonio Samuel moved to represent himself under Faretta. The circuit judge denied his motion, finding Samuel was lying about whether he had or would have access to legal coaching in preparation for trial. The court of appeals affirmed, and the Supreme Court now reverses that decision.

On the day his case was called to trial, Samuel indicated he was dissatisfied with defense counsel and made a Faretta motion to waive his right to counsel and proceed pro se. During the hearing on that motion, Samuel stated that his mother had paid an attorney Mr. Grant some money to act as an informal consultant to Samuel, in order to help him properly represent himself. The trial judge summoned that Mr. Grant to the courtroom, and Grant denied having any such relationship with the defendant. The circuit judge denied Samuel’s request to proceed pro so, stating that Samuel’s and Grant’s conflicting testimony meant that Samuel was lying to her and attempting to manipulate the proceedings. Thereafter, Samuel proceeded to trial with his counsel and was found guilty.

We are unaware of any cases in which a circuit judge has relied on testimony from a third party witness, such as Grant, to determine whether a defendant has effectively invoked the right to proceed pro se. Moreover, whether Grant would be available to advise or coach Samuel throughout the trial relates to his competence to represent himself which, as discussed supra, is entirely irrelevant to the issue of whether he effectively invoked his right of self-representation. Rather, it is clear the circuit judge, with the best of intentions, was so concerned with Samuel proceeding pro se that she went beyond the scope of the question at hand using Grant’s testimony as the basis to prevent Samuel from invoking his constitutional right.

The court further discounts the relevance of Samuels’ dishonesty (assuming for the sake of argument that he was being dishonest in his testimony about his relationship with Grant), stating “even if Samuel’s testimony was misleading, this Court indicated in Barnes [413 S.C. at 3] that a defendant’s improper motive or unethical conduct is not enough to preclude him from exercising his right to self-representation.”

Justice Kittrdge dissents, arguing that the Faretta framework should be interpreted more broadly, “to allow for a trial court’s exercise of discretion where, as here, the knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily asserted right of self-representation is accompanied by a circumstance that undermines the integrity of the proceedings and the orderly administration of justice.”

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