Right to be protected from our own bad judgment?

The headline caused me to do a double-take. “Duluth man who represented self in court complains of bad counsel.” Was this a joke?

Steven Lynn Oppel

No. A man charged with a serious sex offense couldn’t afford a lawyer and turned down a public defender – in spite of several admonitions from the judge in pretrial hearings. He was convicted and sentenced to more than a dozen years in prison.  He appeared in court again – this time with a public defender – to ask for a new trial on the grounds that he had been represented by someone who was “unprepared, incompetent and ineffective.”

Seatbelts and Guardrails

We recognize our physical frailties and change our built environment to protect ourselves against them – seat belts and guard rails in cars, back-up beepers on trucks, helmets for football, highchairs for babies.  They aren’t optional: we over-ride individual freedom to protect us from ourselves – and for the general good.

Why do we take a different approach with cognitive frailties? An untrained person defending himself in a criminal suit is at greater risk than a motorcyclist without a helmet, and just as likely to become a liability to the rest of us.  Why can’t we put up a fence to rein in our worst cognitive failures?

Who should pay?

It seems unlikely that an innocent person is going to prison. No matter how incompetent his self defense, the jury convicted him on the strength of the case built by the prosecuting attorney – there was evidence.  But a defense attorney might have questioned evidence or taken other actions leading to a lighter sentence. His current public defender is helping him appeal the case.

How do we balance the right to a fair trial – including one with proper defense counsel – with the financial needs of St. Louis County? Court dockets are crowded and budgets are tight.  Do we owe the court time and costs for a second trial to someone because he rejected  all advice to use an attorney for his first?

Many people think they understand legal procedure after years of watching courtroom dramas on television. Or they mistrust the motives or skills of public defenders. It’s predictable: this will happen in a certain proportion of cases.  Why not prevent the bad result – for the defendant – and the cost to the taxpayers?  Perhaps it’s time for someone to take another case to the Supreme Court, arguing for a guard rail against irrational choices.

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