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United States v. Thornton

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

September 8, 2017



          Michael J. Reagan, Chief Judge United States District Court.

         A. Background

         This case came before the Court on September 7, 2017, for a hearing on Defendant's Motion to Remove Appointed Counsel (Doc. 39). The underlying criminal matter involves a four-count indictment alleging bank robbery on two occasions. A brief history of the proceedings is helpful to understand the posture of the case.

         On February 23, 2017, Defendant Marcus Thornton was indicted on one count of bank robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a) (Doc. 12). Prior to the arraignment, Assistant Federal Public Defender Ethan Skaggs entered his appearance on behalf of the Defendant (Doc. 16). The Defendant was arraigned on March 1, 2017. Following the initial arraignment, a superseding indictment added a second count for brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(ii) (Doc. 22). The Defendant was arraigned on the first superseding indictment on March 23, 2017 (Doc. 29). The initial trial setting of April 24, 2017, was continued on Defendant's unopposed Motion (Doc. 31), thus moving the trial to June 26, 2017 (Dkt. txt. 32).

         Prior to the June 26, 2017 trial date, Defendant filed ex parte correspondence with the Court seeking to terminate his counsel and to exercise his right to a speedy trial (Doc. 33). The Court immediately set the matter for a hearing on June 15, 2017, at which time the Defendant retracted his request to extinguish counsel, or to press for a speedy trial (Dkt. txt. 34). Defense counsel then filed a second unopposed motion to continue the trial, which was granted, thus moving the trial to September 25, 2017 (Docs. 35, 37).

         On August 15, 2017, Defendant sent the Court ex parte correspondence, again seeking to discharge defense counsel (Doc. 39). The Court scheduled the matter for a hearing on September 1, 2017-which ultimately had to be moved to September 7, 2017, for calendaring purposes (Dkt. txt. 40, 48). In the interim, the Defendant filed multiple motions that were stricken because he was still represented by counsel (See Docs. 41, 42, 43).

         On August 23, 2017, the Government filed a second superseding indictment adding two additional counts (Doc. 44). The Defendant was arraigned on the second superseding indictment-alleging a second count of bank robbery and a second count of brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence-on September 5, 2017 (Doc. 51).

         On September 7, 2017, Defendant Thornton came before the Court for a hearing on his Motion to Remove Defense Counsel (Doc. 39). At the hearing, the Court initially discussed the possibility of providing the Defendant with alternative counsel, before moving to the traditional Faretta[1] colloquy. At the conclusion of the colloquy, the Court FINDS that Defendant is competent and able to represent himself for the reasons that follow.

         B. Legal Standards

         The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the accused in a criminal case the right to the effective assistance of counsel. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 684-86, (1984); Wyatt v. United States, 574 F.3d 455, 457 (7th Cir. 2009). This applies to all critical stages of a criminal proceeding, including sentencing. Jackson v. Miller, 260 F.3d 769, 776 (7th Cir. 2001), citing Gardner v. Florida, 430 U.S. 349, 358 (1977). Additionally, the Sixth Amendment provides a defendant “who does not require appointed counsel the right to choose who will represent him.” United States v. Turner, 594 F.3d 946, 948 (7th Cir. 2010), citing Wheat v. United States, 486 U.S. 153, 159 (1988). The logical inverse is also true: “the right to counsel of choice does not extend to defendants who require counsel to be appointed for them.” United States v. Wallace, 753 F.3d 671, 675 (2014), quoting United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U.S. 140, 151 (2006) (emphasis added).

         The right to counsel of choice for a defendant with appointed counsel also does not mean that the defendant has an unlimited ability to request different appointed counsel. See United States v. Alden, 527 F.3d 653, 660 (7th Cir. 2008) (“A district court is not required to appoint a new lawyer each time the defendant requests one”); United States v. Irorere, 228 F.3d 816, 828 (7th Cir. 2000) (“where the defendant's lack of counsel was caused by his own refusal to cooperate with the counsel appointed for him…the district court's decision not to appoint new counsel for the defendant does not constitute an abuse of discretion.”) Faced with a defendant insistent upon self-representation, a district court should make an inquiry to satisfy itself that the defendant is indeed competent to represent himself. See Faretta, 422 U.S. at 835-36 (1975); United States v. Berry, 565 F.3d 385, 386-87 (7th Cir. 2009) (noting that a court can be caught between a rock and a hard place when a defendant insists upon self-representation, but exhibits characteristics that cast doubt upon his ability to competently do so, and noting that in such a situation a district court acted appropriately by conducting a Faretta colloquy).

         In order to proceed pro se, a defendant must demonstrate a knowing and intelligent waiver of his right to counsel. See United States v. Clark, 774 F.3d 1108, 1112 (7th Cir. 2014); Alden, 527 F.3d at 660; Irorere, 228 F.3d at 828. A valid waiver must also be voluntary and unequivocal. Clark, 774 at 1112.

A judge must investigate as long and as thoroughly as the circumstances of the case before him demand….A judge can make certain that an accused's professed waiver of counsel is understandingly and wisely made only from a penetrating and comprehensive examination of all the circumstances under which such a plea is tendered.

Id. quoting Von Moltke v. Gillies, 332 U.S. 708, 723-24 (1948) (Black, J., plurality opinion). The length and arduous nature of the inquiry can and often will vary based on the severity of the charges and the complexity of the case. Id. at 1112-13; Iowa v. ...

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