Is it ever wise to waive your right to counsel?

Rights, Crime

Charles Manson defended himself at his murder trial. He was sentenced to life in prison. Serial killer Ted Bundy represented himself, as did Colin Ferguson, who killed six people on a commuter train. Ferguson received six consecutive life sentences; Bundy got the electric chair.

These are extreme examples of people who foolishly shunned their right to legal representation in court. When you’re charged with a crime of any nature, is it ever wise to waive your right to counsel?

Gideon v. Wainwright gave every criminal defendant the right to counsel

In Florida in 1961, Clarence Gideon was charged with breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny. Because he could not afford counsel, Gideon appeared alone in court. He asked the state to appoint an attorney to represent him, but the court denied his request because he was not charged with a capital offense (one punishable by death).

Gideon was forced to act as his own defense counsel, received a guilty verdict, and was sentenced to five years in state prison. While serving his sentence, Gideon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, suing the Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, arguing that he had been denied his Sixth Amendment rights when the state of Florida did not provide counsel.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and unanimously ruled that, under the Sixth Amendment, all states are required to provide attorneys, upon request, to represent defendants who cannot afford their own counsel in criminal cases, no matter the charge. This ruling was decided on March 18, 1963, in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright.

You also have the right to defend yourself—but should you?

Also under the Sixth Amendment, defendants have the right to represent themselves in court if they are deemed to be mentally competent. In such cases, standby counsel is usually present in court to offer advice, but the defendant does not have to accept the advice and is still in complete control of their own representation.

“Waiving the right to court-appointed counsel is a very bad idea. Court-appointed counsel gives the person assistance with investigating the case, filing appropriate motions, giving competent advice on defenses and ranges of punishment, and trying the case in front of a judge or jury, if necessary,” says  Caleb Ballew, associate attorney with Martinson and Beason in Huntsville, Alabama. “There is virtually no harm in exercising a foundational right intended to benefit the very people who think they may not need it.”

Miranda v. Arizona extended the right to counsel during police interrogations. Here, too, it is unwise to waive your rights.. “There are no pros to a suspect speaking with the police,” says Jonathan Mandel, a Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney and former public defender and prosecutor. “Once the suspect requests counsel, the police are obligated to immediately terminate the interrogation, leaving the suspect to contact counsel himself.”

An old adage, often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, states that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. And like many maxims, this one is grounded in common sense. Even a trained lawyer can have a hard time seeing both sides of the case. And if a professional attorney can be blinded by an inability to approach the case dispassionately, imagine what havoc your own emotions could play if you decided to defend yourself.