Supreme Court Questions the Right to Self-Representation

June 19, 2008

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a state has the right to prevent a possibly schizophrenic defendant from serving as his own lawyer in a criminal court.

The justices concluded, 7-2, that trial judges had discretion to take “realistic account” of an Indiana man’s mental capacities in the case of self-representation.

At issue is whether the fundamental right of an accused person to represent himself or herself applies to those whose are competent enough to stand trial, but perhaps not enough to plead their own defense.

The state wanted a higher standard of competency for those representing themselves than for those standing trial with the help of a lawyer.

“The trial judge,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer for the majority, “will often prove best able to make more fine-tuned mental capacity decisions, tailored to the individualized circumstances of a particular defendant.”

Thursday’s case dealt with Ahmad Edwards, charged with attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon relating to a 1999 incident in which he fired shots after trying to steal shoes at a downtown Indianapolis department store. He fled but was eventually cornered by an FBI agent, who shot him when he refused to surrender.

Over the next few months various psychiatrists offered conflicting conclusions on whether he had schizophrenia, and state criminal courts went back and forth as well over his competency to stand trial and to represent himself.

Edwards was eventually found competent to stand trial, and in June 2005, with the help of standby lawyers, was convicted on charges of criminal recklessness and theft. Standby lawyers are appointed by the court to advise defendants who represent themselves, and can step in if defendants change their mind.

In Edwards’ case, the judge was forced to declare a mistrial on two other counts — attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon — on which the jury could reach no decision.

During a second trial, Edwards again insisted on representing himself and had his attorneys removed. But the trial court ruled that Edwards, though competent to stand trial, lacked the additional capability required to conduct a defense. With defense attorneys present, he was convicted of the remaining two counts.

He appealed those convictions. They were overturned when Indiana agreed that his right to represent himself had been violated.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling “extraordinarily vague,” saying it gives little guidance to trial courts. And he warned judges “have every incentive to make their lives easier” by denying a defendant’s wish to be his own lawyer. Scalia was supported by Justice Clarence Thomas.

The Supreme Court has generally upheld the right of self-representation, but Justice Samuel Alito spoke for many of his colleagues in March oral arguments. “It is the rare case in which a lay defendant can adequately represent himself or herself,” he said. “Where do you draw the line?”

Edwards’ appellate attorney told the justices that standby trial counsel could assist someone like Edwards, and even take over the case if the trial descended into chaos or incoherence.

The Bush administration supported Indiana in the Edwards appeal. “To force the state to have the train wreck occur” would be wrong, Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben told the high court. “This judge did the responsible thing.”

The Indiana case was cited by a defense lawyer in the recent arraignment of five suspected high level al Qaeda terrorists being held in a U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and his fellow defendants asked a military judge they be allowed to represent themselves in court.

Original story found @ CNN.COM

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Obscenity, Porn, or Art On Trial

June 11, 2008


What violates community obscenity standards in the nation’s reputed pornography capital? Federal prosecutors think they know it when they see it.

Ira Isaacs readily admits he produced and sold movies depicting bestiality and sexual activity involving feces and urine.

The judge warned potential jurors that the hours of fetish videos included violence against women, and many of them said they don’t want to serve because watching would make them sick to their stomachs.

“It’s the most extreme material that’s ever been put on trial. I don’t know of anything more disgusting,” said Roger Jon Diamond — Isaacs’ own defense attorney.

The case is the most visible effort of a new federal task force designed to crack down on smut in America. Isaacs, however, says his work is an extreme but constitutionally protected form of art.

“There’s no question the stuff is disgusting,” said Diamond, who has spent much of his career representing pornographers. “The question is should we throw people in jail for it?”

Isaacs, 57, a Los Angeles advertising agency owner who says he used to market fine art in commercial projects, calls himself a “shock artist” and says he went into distributing and producing films about fetishes because “I wanted to do something extreme.”

“I’m fighting for art,” he said in an interview before his federal trial got under way. “Art is on trial.”

He plans to testify as his own expert witness and said he will cite the historic battles over obscenity involving authors James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence.

One of his exhibits, he said, will be a picture of famed artist Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” a porcelain urinal signed by the artist in 1917.

Diamond said Isaacs also will tell jurors the works have therapeutic value for people with the same fetishes depicted on screen.

“They don’t feel so isolated,” Diamond said. “They have fetishes that other people have.”

Isaacs makes a brief appearance in one of the videos he produced; others that he distributed were imported from other countries.

The business has been lucrative. At one point, he has said, he was selling 1,000 videos a month at $30 apiece. Then his office was raided by agents who bought his videos online with undercover credit cards.

The government obtained an indictment against Isaacs on a variety of obscenity charges, including importation or transportation of obscene material for sale. Prosecutors have declined to comment about the case.

Jean Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at University of Southern California, said such prosecutions were rare until the creation of the U.S. Department of Justice Obscenity Prosecution Task Force. Child pornography cases are handled by a separate unit.

“The problem with obscenity is no one really knows what it is,” she said. “It’s relatively simple to paint something as an artistic effort even if it’s offensive.”

The test of obscenity still hinges on a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which held that a work is not legally obscene if it has “literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

Jurors also are asked to determine whether the material in question violates standards of what is acceptable to the community at large.

“This task force was quite controversial and many in the Department of Justice felt that it was a waste of resources,” Rosenbluth said. “Because of the pressure, they seem to have chosen the worst cases they can find to prosecute.”

Each of the four counts against Isaacs carries a five-year maximum prison sentence. Prosecutors also are seeking forfeiture of assets obtained through his video sales. Two of the original six counts were dropped.

“A lot of this is about sending a message — `Don’t make this stuff. Don’t put it on the Internet. We don’t want it here,”‘ Rosenbluth said.

Rosenbluth said prosecutors would be emboldened to pursue similar cases if Isaacs is convicted, though there would be lengthy challenges on appeal.

In an unusual twist, the trial is being presided over by the chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Alex Kozinski, under a program that allows appellate judges to occasionally handle criminal trials at the District Court level. Kozinski is known as a strong defender of free speech and First Amendment rights.

Eight men and six women were chosen for the jury Tuesday. Two will be designated alternates later. The panel was to hear opening statements Wednesday before viewing the movies.

When jury selection began Monday, he urged prospects to be open about their opinions and incurred an onslaught of negative statements. Within the first hour, he dismissed 26 men and women who said they could not be fair to the defendant because they were repulsed by the subject matter. By day’s end, half the panel of 100 had been excused.

“I think watching something like that would make me physically ill, nauseous,” said one woman. “It’s affecting me physically now just thinking about it.”

One man fired angry comments at the ponytailed Isaacs.

“Hearing stuff about feces made me sick and the defendant looks like my ex-business partner who did some of these things. He looks guilty as sin to me,” said the man. “It turns my stomach thinking about it.”

Several prospects marched up to the judge’s bench for private conferences when he told them that the films also involved violence against women. They, too, were excused, as were several who cited their religious beliefs.
Asked how long they would have to watch the movies, Kozinski told them it would be about five hours and “I will be there watching with you. This is part of the job we’re doing.”

This story was originally found @ CNN.COM

The story continues here as the Judge suspends trial.

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Lance Bass Inspired By a Boy in a Dress

April 18, 2008

Lance Bass doesn’t want others to stay silent as he did.

Lance Bass says his PSA is meant to honor a California student shot to death for wearing feminine attire.

So he’s made a public service announcement for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The spot, which is being distributed virally Friday, debuts in advance of the 11th annual National Day of Silence on April 25, when students take a vow of silence to protest bullying, harassment and discrimination in schools.

“I think it’s time for me to stand up … and help educate, because I’m lucky enough to have been given a voice to be able to talk and grab the attention of people,” said the 28-year-old singer, who’s gay.

“Everyday, thousands of students are silenced. They’re silenced by fear, they’re silenced for being who they are. … They’re brothers, they’re sisters, they’re gay, they’re straight, they’re you, they’re me.”

Bass, who recently completed a stint in the Broadway musical “Hairspray” and released a memoir, said the PSA is meant to honor Lawrence King — a 15-year-old student was shot and killed in February in Oxnard, California, by a younger boy because he arrived at school in feminine attire.

“I heard about Lawrence on the news, and it was just incredible to me that kids that age that would have such an issue … with the subject of being gay,” said Bass, who was part of the boy band ‘N Sync. “It also shows me that these kids don’t — they don’t learn (bigotry) on their own. … They’re being told by older siblings or family members or other fellow students.”

Bass — who joined ‘N Sync in 1995 with Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Joey Fatone and Chris Kirkpatrick — announced in July 2006 that he’s gay. It took him a while to come out. (‘N Sync went on hiatus in 2002 and has virtually disbanded now that Justin Timberlake’s career has taken off.)

“I was very scared of ruining my four best friends’ careers,” he said. “The ignorance in me thought that if I did reveal that, that our whole life would crash and the group would end because everyone would hate us. But now I see how stupid that was, and I wish I could go back and be able to tell the world who I really was.

“And I think it would have been fine. My fans have always still stood by me, and they haven’t changed. And I think it would have been great to be able to come out (at) the height of like the ‘N Sync heyday — I think it could have helped a lot of people.”

On a lighter note: Will there ever be an ‘N Sync reunion?

For Lance’s answer to this qustion, check out the rest of the article at CNN.com

** It is clear his career has not taken a turn for the better since the breakup of his boy band, ‘N Sync. Perhaps, he can open up for the New Kids on the Block tour later this year. New Kids in a Dress?

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