It’s been said that a man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client. But what if the judge leaves the man no choice?
The U.S. Supreme Court can answer that question by taking up an unusual appeal from a Tennessee death-row prisoner whose petition will be considered for the first time at the justices’ private conference on Friday.
The local judge’s decision to make Tony Von Carruthers represent himself at his triple-murder trial raises vital questions about when the Sixth Amendment right to counsel can be snatched away. If the justices don’t intervene, Carruthers could be the first person in a century to be executed after being forced to represent himself at trial.
“We think this is a critical issue and necessary to correct a serious injustice in a capital case,” his lawyer at the Supreme Court, Eric Citron, told Bloomberg Law.
After the defendant ran through a series of lawyers and threatened some of them in the lead up to his 1996 trial, the judge presiding over his Shelby County death penalty case said Carruthers had to go it on his own.
His actions were “part of an overall ploy on his part to delay the case forever until something happens that prevents it from being tried,” Judge Joseph Dailey said.
Carruthers, a non-lawyer, was convicted and sentenced to death for the drug-related 1994 murders of Marcellos “Cello” Anderson, Delois Anderson, and Frederick Tucker. He and an accomplice buried them alive “inside a freshly dug grave” in Memphis, prosecutors said.
The accomplice, his co-defendant James Montgomery, was sentenced to death as well. But that was reversed by the state’s top court, which found that Montgomery was so prejudiced in front of the jury by the way Carruthers represented himself that he should have gotten his own trial.
Citron says that underscores the prejudicial nature of Carruthers’ self-representation to Carruthers, too.
Montgomery got a new sentencing at which he avoided the death penalty.
Carruthers says there’s a split among the nation’s courts on whether a judge can take away a defendant’s lawyer as a sanction for misconduct.
Different judicial approaches have led to “inconsistent and unpredictable results incompatible with the orderly administration of justice,” he says in the filing from Citron and other lawyers at Supreme Court litigation firm Goldstein & Russell, P.C. and a public defender.
“Courts are all over the map in how they resolve these issues,” said Marc McAllister, a professor at Texas State University whose scholarship is cited in Carruthers’ petition. He said the case pits two Sixth Amendment rights against one another: the right to representation by counsel and the right to self-representation.
The Supreme Court could take the case to “clarify the precise interplay between the competing Sixth Amendment rights,” McAllister said.
The high court has set out strict rules for judges to warn defendants about waiving the right to counsel, and that didn’t happen here, Carruthers’ petition points out.
At the very least, he argues, the judge should have had to issue the formal warnings required for defendants who voluntarily waive the right to counsel, given that it was involuntary in his case.
The state counters in its opposition brief—it won’t comment on the case beyond the filing—that procedural limitations of habeas corpus review are enough for the justices to reject the appeal.
Under that rubric, federal courts can deny prisoners relief from state court judgments when those state decisions don’t clearly contravene Supreme Court precedent. So the procedural posture of Carruthers’ case—the fact that he’s appealing the denial of a federal habeas petition rather than directly appealing his state case—makes it a worse vehicle for resolving the Sixth Amendment issue, McAllister said.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit also noted the procedural obstacle when it condoned the habeas denial, though one of the judges who signed onto the unanimous opinion, Jane B. Stranch, criticized the state court’s denial of a lawyer as a sanction. “I cannot agree that a criminal defendant may be denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel as a form of punishment,” she wrote.
The case is Carruthers v. Mays, U.S., 18-697, petition pending.