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Court Reverses Rape Conviction Due to Violation of Right to Counsel

December 16, 2015

In Tyner v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a defendant’s 35 year-old rape conviction on the grounds that he was deprived of his right to counsel.

In 1981, the defendant was tried in Columbus, GA on two counts of rape, two counts of aggravated sodomy, and two counts of burglary. The defendant was represented by counsel for much of the trial and was ultimately convicted of all six counts.

At trial, after the State had rested and the defendant had testified in his defense, his defense counsel informed the court that the defendant wished to represent himself for the remainder of the trial. After the judge’s brief description of closing arguments and the jury charge conference, the defendant confirmed that he wished to proceed pro se. The defendant was then informed that, during closing argument, he would be limited to discussing the evidence presented at trial and any logical inferences which could be drawn from it. He was also advised that he would be held to the same rules that would apply to an attorney.

Almost as soon as he started his closing argument, the defendant began to break those rules, discussing Supreme Court holdings and pretrial conferences. He was repeatedly interrupted by the judge and objected to by the State as he continued to make impermissible arguments.

Evidently frustrated with the process, the defendant asked the court to allow his attorney to take over. The defendant explained that he did not understand what rules he was breaking or how to comply with them. Though defense counsel was ready and willing to take over, the court refused the request and insisted that the defendant continue pro se. The judge’s reason for the denial was that the defense is entitled to only one closing argument, and he would not allow the defendant to “toy with the court.”

Unsurprisingly, the remainder of the defendant’s closing went very much like the beginning—drawing repeated objections and interruptions. The jury convicted him on all six counts and he was immediately sentenced to the maximum period of imprisonment for each offense.

The defendant was then appointed an appellate attorney who handled a motion for new trial that was denied. Rather than file a Notice of Appeal to the appellate courts, the appointed attorney claimed that he had been appointed only for the motion for new trial. The defendant attempted to appeal pro se but was unsuccessful.

Finally, in 2013, the defendant got the appeal he had waited over thirty years for. With the help of the Georgia Innocence Project and the Columbus Public Defender’s Office, the defendant was granted permission to file an out-of-time appeal on the grounds that there was no record of him ever waiving his right to an appeal.

The Court of Appeals held that a defendant who initially waives his right to counsel and elects to represent himself, may later revoke that waiver and re-assert his right to the assistance of an attorney. The grant of such a request would be within the discretion of the trial court.

Here, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court had abused its discretion in denying the defendant his request for an attorney during closing argument. The Court held that this constituted a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel and required the reversal of his conviction. The Court found that the defendant was clearly overwhelmed by the trial process and that his renewed request for an attorney had no impact on the trial court’s ability to manage its docket, nor would it cause significant disruption of the trial since defense counsel was already there and ready to proceed. Under these circumstances, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court was unjustified in denying the defendant’s request for counsel.

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