BOZELKO: Dylann Roof shouldnt be allowed to act as his own lawyer

Pool Report—X80003
Dylann Storm Roof appears by closed-circuit television at his bond hearing in Charleston

Dylann Roof, the avowed white supremacist accused of killing nine black parishioners at a Charleston, South Carolina church last year, is a 22-year-old man with a presumed history of drug use. He did not graduate from high school. He could be sentenced to death if a jury finds him guilty. And yet he is acting as his own lawyer to defend himself.Roof is representing himself in court against the advice of the presiding judge, Richard Gergel. And by doing so, Roof will likely go the way of other self-represented defendants like Joan of Arc, Jesus, Socrates and Ted Bundy: he’s probably going to be convicted and killed.But what many people don’t understand is that the judge had no choice. Since the Supreme Court decided Faretta v. California in 1975, the right to represent oneself is absolute regardless of intellect or educational attainment. Requests to relinquish counsel “must be honored out of that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law.”This precedent needs to be overturned or modified in a meaningful way. Scholars, judges and attorneys have long seen self-represented defendants as calves pulling their own leads to slaughter. Accordingly, they’ve chipped away at Faretta. Courts look for ways to deny requests for self-representation because they know the unfairness that can ensue. Federal circuit courts are actually split on what constitutes a valid self-representation request. The Supreme Court itself curbed the Faretta right in 2008 in Indiana v. Edwards when it held that defendants can be competent to stand trial yet not competent to represent themselves.Whether self-representation would hurt every defendant who engaged in it is debatable. Many self-represented defendants win, but always in cases where lethal injection isn’t a possible penalty. Every self-represented person in a capital case has lost.And yet we still allow defendants like Dylann Roof to act as their own attorneys, despite their obvious inability to do so. Consider the case of Scott Panetti. Panetti, a veteran diagnosed with schizophrenia, was allowed to represent himself at trial on charges that he murdered his in-laws. He wore a purple cowboy suit during the trial and tried to subpoena Jesus Christ. As expected, he was convicted and sentenced to die. His execution was halted, but he remains on Texas’ death row today. The indignities posed to Roof and Panetti should be enough to convince us that Faretta is bad law. Saying that minimally educated or mentally ill criminal defendants who face lethal penalties must be free from government intrusion in the form of counsel is the same thing as saying suicide is part of individual liberty. While it may be true, it contradicts our country’s alleged respect for life. What is judicially permissible may not be moral.In the name of individual liberties that we’ve already stopped protecting, we will watch Roof’s slow, elaborate, taxpayer-funded self-harm unfold. The trial of the Charleston church shooter places us at a crossroads of Constitution and conscience. If we overturn Faretta v. California and prevent defendants in capital cases from defending themselves while providing them with qualified and paid counsel, we won’t have to choose.Chandra Bozelko served seven years in prison for convictions of 13 felonies related to identity theft. She is the author of “Up the River: An Anthology.”