D.C. Superior Court trial judges must pay closer attention to pleas by defendants that their lawyers are ineffective, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Citing defendants' rights to adequate counsel under the Sixth Amendment, the court set clearer standards for inquiry by trial judges into defendants' pleas of inadequate legal representation.
The standards were included in an appeals opinion written by Chief Judge Theodore R. Newman Jr. in a case involving Harold E. Monroe, a Southeast Washington man who was convicted in Superior Court of kidnaping and armed robbery.
The basis for appeal by Monroe was that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to cousel by Superior Court Judge W. Byron Sorrell.Claiming that his lawyer was ineffective, Monroe, in a pretrial motion, asked to change counsel. Sorrell refused his motion. Although Monroe's conviction was upheld by the appellate court, the court gave close scrutiny to the extent of Sorrell's inquiry into Monroe's motion.
"We think that . . . in the pretrial context the fundamental interests which the Sixth Amendment seeks to protect dictate that the trial courts apply a comprehensive standard of competence in reviewing pretrial claims of ineffectiveness," Judge Newman wrote, "and that the standard need not be the same as that which applies to post-trial claims."
The court said that no substantive inquiry was made by Sorrell to "elucidate from counsel information to rebut, or substantiate, the specifics" of Monroe's complaint.
The appellate court said that, when a claim is raised of a lawyer's ineffectiveness, the trial court "must make appropriate factual findings on the record with respect to the asserted claim. . . .
"The trial court must put to defense counsel . . . specific questions designed to elicit whether or not the . . . criteria of professional competence have been met."
Assistant U.S. Attorney John A. Terry said the appeals decision added a "new twist" to trial court defense representation, but said he doubted that it was a "major decision."
"Mainly it means that trial judges have to pay more heed to pretrial investigations," Terry said. "But I'm not convinced that the decision will greatly changed the way defendants are represented."