Accused Murderer Given New Trial Without Attorney

CHICAGO (CN) – A Wisconsin court unconstitutionally denied a murder defendant the right to represent himself, the Seventh Circuit ruled, finding that counsel cannot be “shoved down an unwilling defendant’s throat.”

“Although the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives every criminal defendant the right ‘to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense,’ the Supreme Court has recognized for more than 40 years that this does not mean that counsel can be shoved down an unwilling defendant’s throat,” Judge Diane Wood wrote for the Chicago-based appeals court’s three-judge panel.

Robert Tatum was charged with the murders of his two roommates, Kyle Ippoliti and Ruhim Abdella, in 2010.

A mental health expert found Tatum competent, albeit likely to be “an extremely challenging defendant,” court records show.

But a Wisconsin trial judge denied Tatum’s request to represent himself, citing his 10th-grade education and failure to recognize the disadvantages of self-representation.

Tatum was represented at trial by an attorney whom he had asked to be dismissed and with whom he refused to meet out of frustration with her questions of his competence. He was convicted of both counts of first-degree homicide, and sentenced to life without parole.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit ruled Tuesday that the trial judge went too far by questioning Tatum not just to determine his competence, but to determine his educational level and understanding of the legal system.

“Nothing in the colloquy suggests that Tatum suffered from deficient mental functioning, as opposed to a limited education. In fact, he displayed relatively good knowledge of the criminal process: he gave a reasonable description of voir dire (which he correctly called by name), strikes for cause and peremptory strikes, opening statements, the nature of the charges against him, and the general range of penalties he faced,” Wood said in the 19-page opinion.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s controlling 1975 decision in Faretta v. California requires a trial judge to warn a defendant about the challenges of self-representation, but then leave it up to him or her to make a decision.

“None of this is to say that Tatum was making a wise choice when he tried so hard to win his right to self-representation,” Wood said. “But Faretta protects the right of a criminal defendant to make this (usually) self-defeating choice.” (Parentheses in original.)

The Seventh Circuit remanded the case with the order to give Tatum a new trial.