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State v. Samuel

Supreme Court of South Carolina

February 28, 2018

The State, Respondent,
Lamont Antonio Samuel, Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2015-002401

          Heard March 1, 2017


         Appeal From Orangeburg County The Honorable Diane Schafer Goodstein, Circuit Court Judge

          Appellate Defender Robert M. Pachak, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General J. Robert Bolchoz, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Senior Assistant Attorney General W. Edgar Salter, III, all of Columbia, and Solicitor David Michael Pascoe, Jr., of Orangeburg, for Respondent.

          HEARN, JUSTICE

         In this case we clarify the proper scope of a circuit judge's inquiry under Faretta[1] when a criminal defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waives his right to counsel and requests to proceed pro se. Prior to his trial for murder, Lamont Antonio Samuel moved to represent himself under Faretta. The circuit judge denied his motion, finding Samuel was lying about whether he had or would have access to legal coaching in preparation for trial. The court of appeals affirmed. State v. Samuel, 414 S.C. 206, 777 S.E.2d 398 (Ct. App. 2015). We now reverse.


         Samuel was indicted for the murder of his cousin, Taneris Hamilton. On the day his case was called to trial, Samuel indicated he was dissatisfied with defense counsel and made a Faretta motion to waive his right to counsel and proceed pro se. The circuit judge then properly initiated an ex parte hearing to discuss Samuel's Faretta motion with him.

         Samuel informed the court that he was twenty-one years old and had graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA in all honors classes with hopes of enlisting in the Navy as a diesel mechanic. Additionally, Samuel affirmed he understood he was charged with murder and was aware of the elements of the crime. He realized he could be sentenced to at least thirty years in prison, with a maximum possible sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Samuel also indicated he had never been treated for drug or alcohol abuse, mental, or emotional health issues, nor had he taken any medication, drugs, or alcohol in the previous seventy-two hours. The judge noted she found Samuel to be "incredibly articulate" and "exceptionally bright;" nevertheless, she repeatedly told Samuel she had misgivings about his self-representation. Samuel thanked the judge for her advice, but reiterated his request to proceed pro se.

         The circuit judge then inquired as to whether Samuel had any legal training. He responded that he had been studying trial procedures in the Criminal Law Handbook, which he had received in the mail while in prison. Samuel testified that his mother had sent him the book upon the advice of attorney Carl Grant. The circuit judge further questioned whether Samuel was familiar with the rules of evidence, motions in limine, and motions for directed verdict. Samuel affirmed that he was, based upon his study of the Criminal Law Handbook and coaching he had received from Grant. He also acknowledged he would be required to follow the rules of evidence if he were to represent himself, and that he had the right not to testify under the Fifth Amendment. Finally, the circuit judge asked Samuel if he was aware of any possible defenses he might have to the charge against him and, following some prompting questions by the judge, he acknowledged his intent to maintain his innocence based upon his co-defendant's alleged confession.

         Rather than concluding the Faretta colloquy, the circuit judge continued to caution Samuel against representing himself, stating in her opinion Samuel would be far better defended by a trained lawyer, it would be unwise of him to waive his right to counsel, and she did not believe he was sufficiently familiar with the law, procedure, or rules of evidence to adequately represent himself. Despite the judge's warnings and in light of the potential penalties he faced, Samuel voluntarily reaffirmed his desire to dispense with the assistance of counsel and proceed pro se.

         Nevertheless, the circuit judge continued her attempts to dissuade Samuel, asking "Do you know anything or anyone that I can have you speak with that might urge you to have a lawyer represent you?" Samuel responded,

No, ma'am. . . . I mean, my mama, basically paid Mr. Grant a good bit amount [sic] of money. The reason why he couldn't represent me is because . . . his paralegal is related, you know, in some manner. So he had decided to just go over the steps with me day by day. I go through the trial, I got back to him. I talk to him, he'll tell me things or he won't -- he's not going to be in the courtroom, present. . . . I know he's not representing me, but he is coaching me on --.

         The circuit judge then stated, "You're bright enough, educated enough. . . . You don't have a problem that I'm aware of that I can use, in all candor, to keep you from representing yourself." However, instead of ruling on Samuel's motion at that point, the circuit judge summoned Grant to question him on his relationship with Samuel. Nonetheless, prior to Grant's arrival, the judge stated on the record that her inclination was to allow Samuel to represent himself.

         Upon his arrival, Grant testified as follows:

I have no recollection of ever sharing with Ms. Betty Hickson, [Samuel's] mother, anything pertaining to any rules of evidence or rules in criminal procedure or anything like that. . . . The only discussion has been about the legal fees to represent this young man. . . . Also, I've not been retained. . . . I've not offered any assistance to anyone, Judge. I've not even given this young man any kind of copy of the rules of evidence or rules of criminal procedure or offered my assistance in any way. . . . [A]s far as my offering any assistance to him, Judge, number one, if he's representing himself I would not be available to provide any assistance to him in any capacity.

         After hearing Grant's testimony, the circuit judge denied Samuel's request to proceed pro se citing Rule 3.3 of the Rules of Professional Conduct[2] and Gardner v. State, 351 S.C. 407, 412-13, 570 S.E.2d 184, 186-87 (2002) (including whether a defendant is attempting to delay or manipulate the proceedings as one of ten factors courts can consider when determining if a defendant "has a sufficient background to understand the dangers of self-representation"). Specifically, the circuit judge interpreted Samuel's and Grant's conflicting testimony to mean Samuel was lying to her and attempting to manipulate the proceedings.

         Thereafter, Samuel proceeded to trial with his counsel and was found guilty and sentenced to fifty years imprisonment. He appealed his conviction, asserting the circuit judge erred in denying his right to self-representation, and the court of appeals affirmed. Samuel, 414 S.C. at 213, 777 S.E.2d at 402. This Court granted Samuel a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' opinion.


         Whether a defendant has knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to counsel is a mixed question of law and fact which appellate courts review de novo. United States v. Lopez-Osuna, 242 F.3d 1191, 1198 (9th Cir. 2000). Specifically, we review a circuit judge's findings of historical fact for clear error; however, we review the denial of the right of self-representation based upon those findings of fact de novo. United States v. Bush, 404 F.3d 263, 270 (4th Cir. 2005). In doing so, this Court must consider the defendant's testimony, history, and the circumstances of his decision, as presented to the circuit judge at the time the defendant made his request. United States v. Singleton, 107 F.3d 1091, 1097 (4th Cir. 1997).


         Through counsel, Samuel now argues the court of appeals erred in affirming the circuit judge's denial of his Faretta motion to proceed pro se. In particular, Samuel contends the circuit judge impermissibly exceeded the scope of the Faretta inquiry by considering Grant's testimony to conclude that Samuel was attempting to manipulate the proceedings, thereby precluding him from proceeding pro se. We agree.

         In Faretta, the United States Supreme Court held that criminal defendants have a fundamental right to self-representation under the Sixth Amendment. 422 U.S. at 819-21. In order to effectively invoke this right of self-representation, the defendant must clearly and unequivocally assert his desire to proceed pro se and such request must be made knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily. United States v. Frazier-El, 204 F.3d 553, 558 (4th Cir. 2000). Where a defendant invokes his right of self-representation before trial, the only inquiry the circuit judge may undertake is that required by Faretta. State v. Barnes, 407 S.C. 27, 35, 753 S.E.2d 545, 550 (2014). Thus, the only basis upon which a circuit judge may deny a defendant's pre-trial motion to proceed pro se is if the court determines the defendant has not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to counsel. State v. Reed, 332 S.C. 35, 41, 503 S.E.2d 747, 750 (1998). A circuit judge's denial of a defendant's knowing and voluntary request to proceed pro se is a structural error requiring automatic reversal and a new trial. State v. Rivera, 402 S.C. 225, 247, 741 S.E.2d 694, 705 (2013).

         Whether a defendant has intelligently waived his right to counsel depends upon the particular facts and circumstances surrounding each case, including the background, experience, and conduct of the accused. Singleton, 107 F.3d at 1097. Moreover, as the United States Supreme Court has emphasized, "the competence that is required of a defendant seeking to waive his right to counsel is the competence to waive the right, not the competence to represent himself." Godinez, 509 U.S. at 399 (emphasis in original). In other words, whether a defendant is capable of effectively representing himself has no bearing upon his ability to elect self-representation. Id. at 400; see also Faretta, 422 U.S. at 836 (holding a defendant's "technical legal knowledge . . . [is] not relevant to an assessment of his knowing exercise of the right to defend himself"). Thus, this Court has held that

[t]he ultimate test of whether a defendant has made a knowing and intelligent waiver of the right to counsel is not the trial judge's advice, but the defendant's understanding. A determination by the trial judge that the accused lacks the expertise or technical legal knowledge to proceed pro se does not justify a denial of the right to self-representation; the only relevant inquiry is whether the accused made a knowing and intelligent waiver of the right to counsel.

State v. Brewer, 328 S.C. 117, 119, 492 S.E.2d 97, 98 (1997) (internal citations omitted) (emphasis added).

         Although a defendant's decision to proceed pro se may ultimately be to his detriment, such requests "must be honored out of that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law." Barnes, 407 S.C. at 35-36, 753 S.E.2d at 550 (internal quotation omitted); see also Frazier-El, 204 F.3d at 558 (noting a defendant's right of self-representation generally must be honored, regardless of whether he would benefit from advice of counsel). Indeed, "[a] decision can be made intelligently, with an understanding of the consequences, without the decision itself being a wise one." Reed, 332 S.C. at 41, 503 S.E.2d at 750.

         We agree with Samuel that the circuit judge erred in refusing to allow him to represent himself at trial. In this case, the circuit judge repeatedly noted how intelligent and articulate she found Samuel to be. Samuel also clearly expressed his understanding of the nature of the charge against him and the potential penalties he faced were he to be found guilty. He indicated he was making the request of his own volition and continuously asked to represent himself despite the circuit judge's persistent attempts to dissuade him. See Reed, 332 S.C. at 41, 503 S.E.2d at 750 (holding although it is the circuit judge's responsibility to inform the defendant of the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation, whether the judge believes the decision is prudent or wise is entirely irrelevant).

         We acknowledge it was within the circuit judge's authority to summon Grant; however, her questioning of Grant should have been limited to discerning whether Samuel's request was knowingly and voluntarily made. Moreover, our standard of review requires us to consider de novo the circuit judge's application of Grant's testimony to Samuel's Faretta request. Bush, 404 F.3d at 270. We are unaware of any cases in which a circuit judge has relied on testimony from a third party witness, such as Grant, to determine whether a defendant has effectively invoked the right to proceed pro se. Moreover, whether Grant would be available to advise or coach Samuel throughout the trial[3] relates to his competence to represent himself which, as discussed supra, is entirely irrelevant to the issue of whether he effectively invoked his right of self-representation. Godinez, 509 U.S. at 399. Rather, it is clear the circuit judge, with the best of intentions, was so concerned with Samuel proceeding pro se that she went beyond the scope of the question at hand using Grant's testimony as the basis to prevent Samuel from invoking his constitutional right. We fully recognize the delicate balance a circuit judge must try to achieve in safeguarding a defendant's constitutional right to represent himself and the almost sure disaster that will result from his self-representation. Nevertheless, because we find Grant's testimony irrelevant to the issue, the circuit judge erred in relying on it to deny Samuel's request to represent himself.[4]

         Moreover, we find the circuit judge's reliance on Rule 3.3 RPC and Gardner is misplaced. Not only has this Court never held that a criminal defendant acting pro se must comply with the rules of professional conduct, but we are unaware of any jurisdiction which has explicitly required criminal defendants to comply with ethical rules governing lawyers. Indeed, this Court has suggested, albeit in dicta, that the opposite may be true. See State v. Barnes, 413 S.C. 1, 3 n.1, 774 S.E.2d 454, 455 n.1 (2015) ("Even if we believe that a criminal defendant's exercise of his constitutional rights stem from impure motives, that motivation alone is not a basis to deny him these rights. Further, while it is unethical for an attorney to engage in conduct which tends to pollute the administration of justice (Rule 7(a)(5), Rule 413 SCACR), we are unaware that this principle applies to a criminal defendant." (emphasis added)).[5]

         Finally, although Gardner permits a circuit judge to consider a defendant's attempted manipulation of the proceedings, we discern no attempt by Samuel to disrupt or manipulate the process here. In most cases where a court has found a defendant to be manipulative, the defendant was clearly attempting to dispense with counsel in order to make impermissible arguments or raise invalid defenses at trial- in effect, to "beat the system"-rather than to waive the benefits of counsel. See, e.g., Frazier-El, 204 F.3d at 560 (court found defendant's conduct manipulative where defendant repeatedly requested to replace his appointed counsel with another public defender, because his attorney would not present certain impermissible arguments, and it was clear his request to appear pro se was merely "a manipulative effort . . . to assert the defenses himself"). The only instance of manipulation the circuit judge cited was the disparate testimony from Samuel and Grant regarding their relationship. However, even if Samuel's testimony was misleading, this Court indicated in Barnes that a defendant's improper motive or unethical conduct is not enough to preclude him from exercising his right to self-representation. See Barnes, 413 S.C. at 3 n.1, 774 S.E.2d at 455 n.1. Therefore, we find Samuel made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary request to proceed pro se as required by Faretta, and he should have been given the opportunity to represent himself.


         For the foregoing reasons, we hold the circuit judge erred in denying Samuel's invocation of his right to self-representation under Faretta. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals' opinion and remand to the circuit judge for a new trial.

          BEATTY, C.J and Acting Justice J Cordell Maddox, Jr, concur.

          KITTREDGE, J, concurring in a separate opinion in which JAMES, J, concurs


         I respectfully dissent. The majority holds that "the only basis upon which a circuit judge may deny a defendant's pre-trial motion to proceed pro se is if the court determines the defendant has not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to counsel." I certainly do not disagree in the abstract that an assertion of this right must be knowing, intelligent, and voluntary, and in the vast majority of cases, the majority's categorical approach will result in the proper outcome. But I construe the Faretta[6] framework more broadly to allow for a trial court's exercise of discretion where, as here, the knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily asserted right of self-representation is accompanied by a circumstance that undermines the integrity of the proceedings and the orderly administration of justice. As a result, I would reject the majority's categorical rule that effectively precludes consideration of the trial court's exercise of discretion and places trial judges at the mercy of those who seek to exploit the right to self-representation for manipulative or disruptive ends.

         In my judgment, this case illustrates the perplexing difficulties trial courts encounter when a defendant desires to proceed pro se and provides satisfactory, formulaic responses to the Faretta inquiry, yet the trial court perceives there is more at play. One of those difficulties occurs when a defendant's request to proceed pro se is motivated by a desire to manipulate the proceedings. According to the experienced trial judge, that is precisely what Petitioner was attempting to do. Review of such a fact-based determination necessarily involves consideration of the trial court's exercise of discretion and recognition that the trial judge was in a position to hear the accused and observe his demeanor. Because I am convinced there is evidence to support the trial court's finding, I would affirm.

         More broadly, my concern is that the Court's categorical rule-that an absolute right to procced pro se automatically follows formulaic responses to Faretta inquiry-will invite mischief in the trial courts of this state while tying the hands of our trial court judges. Granted, in the vast majority of cases, requests to proceed pro se will be regularly and properly granted, but trial court discretion must always be present to address the particular circumstances of the case, such as where this right is asserted to serve manipulative, disruptive, or dilatory ends. Trial court discretion ensures the integrity of our justice system.


         The record in this case reveals that in addition to being charged with murder, Petitioner was also charged with obstruction of justice for repeatedly giving false statements to police in which he identified an uninvolved person as the shooter; for snatching one of his written statements from an investigator's hand and ripping it up; and for lying to police when he claimed to have thrown a gun involved in the murder[7] into a nearby pond-a lie that caused three separate law enforcement agencies, including a dive team from Lexington County, to expend time and resources over several days searching the pond for a nonexistent gun.[8]

         In asserting his right of self-representation, Petitioner expressed frustration with his appointed counsel because counsel refused to let Petitioner speak directly with the solicitor to provide what Petitioner believed to be exculpatory evidence-namely, letters from a codefendant which Petitioner believed constituted a written confession exonerating him. Petitioner explained that counsel's request to review the letters for incriminating statements before deciding whether they should be shared with the State was asinine because "Why would I give you something that incriminates me[?]" Petitioner further explained his belief that counsel's efforts to negotiate a guilty plea to a lesser included offense demonstrated counsel did not believe Petitioner was innocent and this caused Petitioner to question counsel's loyalty in defending him.

         During a detailed Faretta inquiry, the trial court asked Petitioner whether he had ever studied the law. Petitioner responded that he had studied a criminal law handbook which he claimed was provided to his mother by a local attorney, Carl Grant. Shortly thereafter, Petitioner mentioned Mr. Grant again, explaining:

[Petitioner]: I mean, my mama, basically paid Mr. Grant a good bit of money. The reason why [Mr. Grant] couldn't represent me is because my family-I guess his paralegal is related, you know, in some manner. So he had decided to just go over the steps with me day by day. I go through the trial, I got back to him. I talk to him, he'll ...

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