In this fitness hearing fiasco, a public defender paved the way for a finding of unfitness. This was completely opposite of what the client wanted. Defendant believed and wanted her attorney to argue that she was fit to stand trial. After she got treatment, got medicated, and regained fitness she didn’t thank her counsel. Instead, she appealed and claimed her attorney provided ineffective assistance of counsel for going against her.People v. Holt, 2014 IL 116989 (11/20/2014). Listen to Podcast Episode 033 of the Criminal Nuggets podcast to discover this twist in criminal Illinois case law.
Was trial counsel being ineffective when she did not follow her client’s directive and argue for her fitness even though trial counsel personally believed her client was unfit to stand trial?
Defendant faced discorderly conduct charges and resisting arrest charges. She threw some eggs on a driveway and got out of line with the police who responded.
The record revealed a plethora of erratic, confusing, and unexplainable conduct by the defendant.
The court ordered fitness evaluation found her unfit to stand trial.
Defendant requested a jury on the issue of her fitness. That was a big fiasco, but it ended in a finding that she was unfit to stand trial.
Defense counsel argued forcibly for outpatient treatment. However, the court ordered inpatient treatment. The court was influenced by the doctor’s opinion that Defendant would not comply with or cooperate with her treatment providers.
Defendant appealed and argued her trial counsel was ineffective. This was her argument:
“[D]efendant claims that when the People raise a bona fide doubt about a defendant’s fitness before trial and the defendant asserts that she is fit, defense counsel is constitutionally obliged to fight for a finding of fitness—even if the evidence tells counsel his client is unfit.” ¶ 49.
This case presented an opportunity to address the responsibilities of a criminal defense attorney with an unfit client.
This case finally establishes a body of law that addresses the responsibilities of a defense attorney charged with representing an unfit client. The court wisely concluded that this case cannot be the only instance where a troubled defendant and her defense counsel are at odds over the question of defendant’s fitness to stand trial.
The Illinois Supreme Court came down squarely in support of a defense attorney who does strictly advocate her client’s demands.
“No plausible interpretation of the right to counsel would require defendant’s lawyers to fight for an outcome that, in counsel’s estimation—and in fact—would violate due process. The due process clause of the fourteenth amendment bars prosecution of a defendant unfit to stand trial. See People v. Shum, 207 Ill. 2d 47, 57 (2003).” ¶ 51
A defendant may not be put to trial unless he has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him. See Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348, 354 (1996).
It is contradictory to argue that a defendant may be incompetent, and yet knowingly or intelligently waive his right to have the court determine his capacity to stand trial. It is a corollary principle that such a defendant may not direct defense counsel to do so.
What about adversarial testing?
“Defendant’s theory of adversarial testing would require defense counsel to oppose the State no matter what position it takes—if an incompetent defendant so desires—regardless of the evidence, even though the defendant is unable to appreciate the nature of the proceedings against her or assist in her defense.” ¶ 52.
“That position is simply absurd.” ¶ 52
The Illinois Supreme Court believes that the first responsibility of any criminal defense attorney, should be to independently assess whether the client is fit to stand trial. “In fulfilling that preliminary responsibility, and taking appropriate action thereon, irrespective of the State’s position, a defense attorney has afforded his client appropriate representation.” ¶ 52.
“Where, as here, the evidence clearly indicates that defendant is unfit to stand trial, but a defendant contends that he or she is fit, defense counsel is not obligated to adopt the defendant’s position and argue for a finding of fitness. In fact, in doing so, defense counsel would be violating his duty to the client and suborning a violation of due process.” ¶ 56
This case is probably broader than the specific scenario this public defender found herself in. This defendant was only appealing the fact that counsel did not advocate for her fitness. But the court was quite clear that an unfit Defendant cannot take any meaningful positions in her case.
Thus, Defendant could not provide meaning advice on
- Procedural Steps
or other litigation decisions.
Also, I think we should acknowledge the great stress these public defenders found themselves in. We have them to thank for this decision.