Petitioner, under a life sentence imposed by a state court, brought a writ of habeas corpus alleging violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in that while he was of unsound mind and unassisted by counsel, he was tried and convicted of a charge carrying a mandatory life sentence. The lower court dismissed the writ without a hearing. Held: reversed, a hearing on the issue of insanity was required. If the allegations were true, the failure to assign counsel violated the Fourteenth Amendment since a trial which left the defense to a man who was insane and who by reason of his mental condition was unable to raise the insanity issue was unfair.
The accused in a federal felony proceeding is assured the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment. In state felony proceedings, however, the Sixth Amendment is held inapplicable; instead the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment controls. In interpreting the Due Process Clause, the Supreme Court has required counsel only where the absence of counsel was prejudicial to fundamental rights of the accused. In an attempt to define this vague standard, the nine members of the Court have frequently disagreed on what constitutes a prejudicial situation. The majority, following a case-by-case method of definition, has established certain categories of situations which are considered prejudicial if counsel is absent, e.g., where there is (1) a young and inexperienced defendant; (2) a mentally deficient defendant; (3) a possibility of a death sentence; (4) a defendant who is a stranger to our language and our courts; (5) deception by the prosecution; (6) a biased or careless judge; or (7) complexity of issues. A minority of the Court has constantly argued that the lack of counsel in any felony proceeding is prejudicial to the fundamental rights of the accused. The instant case adheres to the majority’s rationale and establishes yet another situation in which the lack of counsel creates a potential danger to the fundamental rights of the accused; viz, the possibility of an insane defendant.
Charles K. Thompson,
Constitutional Law—Due Process—Right to Counsel in State Felony Proceedings,
34 Neb. L. Rev. 711
Available at: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol34/iss4/14