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The California Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously reversed the death sentence of a man denied the opportunity to represent himself at trial, but not before one justice lashed out at the 28-year-old decision governing the right to self-representation. In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Ming Chin wrote that convicted murderer Omar Dent III’s guilt “seems beyond question.” But Chin continues to have doubts about Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1975 ruling that upheld the right to self-representation, even in capital cases. “There is much to be said for modifying Faretta, at least in capital cases,” Chin wrote, “to give the trial court discretion to deny a request for self-representation when no good ground exists for the request and the defendant is not capable of effective self-representation. But such modification is not for us to do.” Justice Janice Rogers Brown, who authored the main opinion, joined in Chin’s concurrence, as did Justice Marvin Baxter. In the main opinion, Brown ruled that Dent, convicted in the 1988 shooting death of merchant Byung Kim during a Los Angeles County robbery, was erroneously denied his right to represent himself after L.A. County Superior Court Judge John Shook dismissed his two longtime lawyers from the case. Brown, in a 12-page ruling — one of the shortest death penalty decisions in recent memory — said Shook mistakenly denied Dent pro per status because he faced the death penalty. The judge also had given Dent the impression — by not letting him speak out of the presence of his lawyers and by denying a mildly phrased Faretta request — that self-representation was out of the question. “The trial court’s response was not only legally erroneous but unequivocal,” Brown wrote, “and foreclosed any realistic possibility defendant would perceive self-representation as an available option.” The trial court eventually appointed new counsel for Dent, who was then found guilty and sentenced to death, but Thursday’s decision remands the case back for further proceedings. The attorneys dismissed by Shook at the trial level — Los Angeles solo practitioner Halvor Miller Jr. and Altadena solo Charles Maple — were very recently at the heart of another controversial death penalty case. On April 3, the Supreme Court by a 4-3 vote affirmed the death sentence for convicted murderer Prentice Snow, even though Miller and Maple — his defense lawyers at trial — didn’t present an iota of mitigating evidence or argument in the penalty phase. In Dent’s trial, Judge Shook, irritated that neither Miller nor Maple showed up the day and hour trial was to begin in 1991, relieved both lawyers from the case, citing a history of continuance requests and failures to appear. “It has now become clear and apparent to this court,” Shook told Dent that day, “that they are just simply too busy to pay attention to your case.” Immediately afterward, Dent asked to represent himself, but was refused. Neither Miller nor Maple could be reached for comment Thursday. In his concurrence Thursday, Justice Chin noted the “irony” that Dent, though being granted a chance for self-representation, might just settle for court-appointed lawyers on remand. “If he does request counsel,” Chin wrote, “then all that the trial court’s error in denying self-representation will have accomplished is to give defendant two trials, not just one, in which he is represented by counsel. This result is hard to explain in any rational manner.” Russell Lehman, the Los Angeles-based deputy attorney general who represented the state, would not comment on any of Chin’s statements, but said his office is considering its options. “No decision has been made as to whether we will go forward or not,” he said. The case is People v. Dent, 03 C.D.O.S. 3076.

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