New Trial Ordered Where District Court Forced Defendant to Represent Himself

In United States v. Venable, 2010 WL 1474348 (4th Cir. April 14, 2010), the Fourth Circuit ordered a new trial because the district court forced the defendant to proceed pro se, even though the defendant did not waive his right to counsel – or wish to do so.

After being indicted, Venable had counsel appointed under the Criminal Justice Act.  However, during the first few weeks of the case Venable was not happy with that attorney and asked the district court to appoint new counsel.  The district court refused, ordering Venable to proceed pro se and directing the CJA attorney to act as standby counsel.  Throughout the case, Venable inststed that he had never wished to act as his own counsel.  After a trial during which “Venable constantly expressed his confusion,” he was found guilty and sentenced to sixty months’ imprisonment.

“Although a defendant may waive his right to counsel, the courts entertain every reasonable presumption against the waiver of this fundamental constitutional right.” United States v. Johnson, 659 F.2d 415, 416 (4th Cir. 1981).  With respect to Venable, the Fourth Circuit found that “[n]othing in the record could be construed as a voluntary waiver,” and that “[e]ven if he had expressed a desire to represent himself, such waiver would not have been knowingly and intelligently made because the court failed to inform [him] of his options or conduct any inquiry” into the waiver.  As such, the district court “violated Venable’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel in forcing him to proceed pro se in the absence of a valid waiver.”