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Law School Case Brief

McKaskle v. Wiggins - 465 U.S. 168, 104 S. Ct. 944 (1984)


A defendant who exercises his right to appear pro se pursuant to the Sixth Amendment cannot thereafter complain that the quality of his own defense amounted to a denial of effective assistance of counsel. Moreover, the defendant's right to proceed pro se exists in the larger context of the criminal trial designed to determine whether or not a defendant is guilty of the offense with which he is charged. The trial judge may be required to make numerous rulings reconciling the participation of standby counsel with a pro se defendant's objection to that participation; nothing in the nature of the right to self-representation suggests that the usual deference to "judgment calls" on these issues by the trial judge should not obtain here as elsewhere.


At his state robbery trial, Carl Edwin Wiggins was permitted to proceed pro se, but the trial court appointed standby counsel to assist him. Before and during the trial, Wiggins frequently changed his mind regarding the standby counsel's role, objecting to counsel's participation on some occasions but agreeing to it on other occasions. Following his conviction, Wiggins unsuccessfully moved for a new trial on the ground that his standby counsel had unfairly interfered with his presentation of his defense. After exhausting direct appellate and state habeas corpus review, Wiggins filed a habeas petition in Federal District Court, claiming that standby counsel's conduct deprived him of his right to present his own defense, as guaranteed by Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806. The District Court denied the petition, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Wiggins’ Sixth Amendment right of self-representation was violated by the unsolicited participation of overzealous standby counsel.


Did criminal defendant Wiggins’ court-appointed standby counsel's conduct deprived him of his right to present his own defense?




On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed. The Court found that his defense was not so limited. The Court concluded that Wiggins was accorded all the rights encompassed within the right to self-representation, including the right to make motions, argue points of law, and question witnesses. The Court found that, while some incidents during the trial were regrettable, counsel's participation outside the presence of the jury, as well as before the jury, did not interfere with Wiggins’ right to present his own defense. Wiggins was given ample opportunity to present his own positions to the trial court on every matter discussed. All conflicts between the inmate and counsel were resolved in the inmate's favor. The Court noted that Wiggins’ pro se efforts were undermined primarily by his own frequent changes of mind regarding counsel's role. The Court ruled that one's Sixth Amendment rights were not violated when a trial judge appointed standby counsel to relieve the judge of the need to explain and enforce basic rules of courtroom protocol or help with overcoming routine obstacles.

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