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Government of the Virgin Islands v. Charles

December 26, 1996




On Appeal From the Appellate Division of the United States District Court of the Virgin Islands, Division of St. Thomas (D.C. Crim. Action No. 89-cr-00083)


STAPLETON, Circuit Judge

Argued August 16, 1995

Filed December 26, l996)


Dale Charles appeals from his convictions for murder in the first degree and for possession of a knife with intent to use it unlawfully. He raises three challenges to his convictions. First, Charles argues that he did not voluntarily and intelligently waive his right to counsel when the district court, after a hearing, granted Charles' request to represent himself at trial. Second, Charles asserts that the district court should have dismissed the information against him because the government conceded during plea negotiations that Charles was insane when the acts in question occurred. Third, Charles claims that there was insufficient evidence of deliberation and premeditation. We will affirm.


In May 1989, Charles stabbed Dale Francois to death in an alley on the Island of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Francois was unarmed. Apparently, when Francois entered the alley, Charles rushed Francois without provocation and stabbed him several times. The government of the Virgin Islands filed an information that charged Charles with first degree murder under 14 V.I.C. Section(s) 922(a)(1) and with possession of a knife with intent to use it unlawfully against Francois during the commission of a crime of violence under 14 V.I.C. 2251(a)(2).

In May 1990, after the defense persuaded the district court to allow Charles to withdraw a guilty plea, a defense expert, Arthur Stillman, M.D., undertook a psychiatric evaluation of Charles. Dr. Stillman concluded that "it seems doubtful that [Charles] could adequately assist his attorney in the preparation and presentation of his defenses [and i]t is quite clear that he cannot differentiate reality from fantasy. . . ." (App. at 51-52.) In addition, regarding Charles' state of mind when he stabbed Francois, Stillman opined that Charles "was suffering from a psychotic paranoid state and is considered to have been insane at that time." (App. at 52.) In November 1990, Michael W. Morrison, Ph.D., a court appointed expert, agreed:

Mr. Charles is suffering from a mental illness that renders him unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him and unable to assist properly in his defense. . . . Mr. Charles was severely mentally ill on [the day of the offense] and his use of a dangerous weapon to commit murder that day was a consequence of his mental illness. (App. at 65-66.) *fn1

In March 1991, the district court found Charles mentally incompetent to stand trial. By December 1992, Bruce Burger, M.D., of the Federal Bureau of Prisons found that Charles' condition had stabilized and that Charles was competent to stand trial. In March 1994, Leighman Lu, M.D., a court appointed expert, and in June 1994, Michael Chiappetta, Psy. D., a defense expert, agreed that Charles was competent to stand trial. Lu also found that Charles was not suffering from any disorder at the time of the offense. Dr. Burger reevaluated Charles in June 1994, and once again found Charles competent to stand trial. After a hearing on September 26, 1994, the district court found Charles competent to stand trial. Jury selection was completed that afternoon and the trial began the next day.

Apparently, at some point before the September 26 hearing, the prosecution and the defense had reached an agreement. Both parties would consent to a bench trial and would stipulate to all of the facts including the findings of Dr. Morrison, namely that Charles' actions were the result of his mental illness. Presumably, what the parties had in mind was a finding by the district court of not guilty by reason of insanity, followed by automatic commitment to a psychiatric institution under 5 V.I.C. Section(s) 3637. Had the government dropped the charges without the stipulation, Charles could have been involuntarily committed only in a proceeding under the general civil commitment statute. That statute requires clear and convincing proof that the individual is a danger to society, and that treatment is likely to be beneficial. 19 V.I.C. 723.

The agreement fell apart, however, when Charles decided that he did not want to raise the defense of insanity. Rather, he decided to claim self defense and demand a jury trial. The prosecution, which had no burden to produce evidence regarding Charles' sanity at the time of the offense until Charles first presented some evidence of insanity, see Government of Virgin Islands v. Webbe, 821 F.2d 187, 189 (3d Cir. 1987), decided to proceed to trial. Charles' attorney, Stephen Brusch, convinced that he could not, on behalf of Charles, agree to the stipulation of insanity or raise the defense of insanity at trial without Charles' consent, moved to dismiss the information on the ground that the prosecution had effectively conceded that Charles was insane at the time of the offense. The district court concluded that Charles' mental state at the time of the offense was an issue for the jury and denied the motion.

At that point, Charles also decided that he no longer wanted Brusch to represent him. He wanted to represent himself at trial. Charles was convinced that Brusch was hostile to the idea of arguing self defense and Charles was concerned that Brusch, as an employee of the local government, had conflicting loyalties. At the hearing on September 26, 1994, after finding Charles to be competent to stand trial and after an extensive colloquy with Charles, the district court determined that Charles knowingly and intelligently waived his right to counsel. The district court granted Charles' motion to proceed pro se and appointed Brusch as stand-by counsel to assist Charles.

Charles presented his case to the jury during a two day trial. The jury convicted him on both counts and the district court sentenced him to life in prison without parole. The district court had jurisdiction under 48 U.S.C. Section(s) 1612. We have jurisdiction to hear this appeal under 28 U.S.C. Section(s) 1291.


First, Charles argues that he did not knowingly and intelligently waive his right to counsel. The Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee the assistance of counsel to anyone accused of a serious criminal offense. See Government of the Virgin Islands v. James, 934 F.2d 468, 470 (3d Cir. 1991). Because a defendant who asks to represent herself is waiving the benefits associated with this important constitutional right, and because "courts [must] indulge in every reasonable presumption against waiver" of important constitutional rights, Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387, 404 (1977), a court cannot grant such a request unless the record shows that the relinquishment is "knowing and intelligent[]." Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 835 (1975) (quoting Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 464-65 (1938)).

In James, this Court provided some details regarding the scope of the Faretta inquiry that a court should undertake in response to a defendant's request to proceed pro se. First, the court must make an inquiry regarding the defendant's reasons for the request. James, 934 F.2d at 470-71. Second, the court should make sure that the defendant is aware of the dangers of self-representation. Specifically, the court should make a thorough and penetrating inquiry to determine whether the defendant understands the nature of the charges, the range of possible punishment, potential defenses, technical problems that the defendant may encounter, and any other facts important to a general understanding of the risks involved. Id. at 471, 473. There is no rote speech that the court must recite. Rather, the proper inquiry depends on the particular facts and circumstances of the case, including the background, experience, and conduct of the accused. Id. at 473-74.

In order for a waiver of the right to counsel to be valid, the court must first assure itself that the defendant is competent to waive the right. Godinez v. Moran, 113 S. Ct. 2680, 2685 (1993). The competency necessary to waive the right to counsel is identical to the competency necessary to stand trial. Id. at 2685-86. The defendant must be able to consult with counsel and must have a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings. United States v. Renfroe, 825 F.2d 763, 766 (3d Cir. 1977). Since a competent defendant is entitled to make his or her own decision with respect to representation, it is irrelevant whether the defendant is capable of representing himself or herself effectively. Godinez, 113 S. Ct. at 2687.

We decide de novo whether the record demonstrates a knowing and intelligent waiver. United States v. Velasquez, 885 F.2d 1076, 1085 (3d Cir. 1989). However, regarding a colloquy between the defendant and the court, the issue of whether the defendant misunderstood what the court said, despite the defendant's unambiguous answers indicating comprehension, is a pure question of fact which depends primarily on the demeanor, conduct, and intonations of the defendant. We review a finding on this underlying factual issue under a clearly erroneous standard. See Miller v. Fenton, 474 U.S. 104, 112 (1985). We review the district court's findings regarding the competency of the defendant for clear error. United States v. Velasquez, 885 F.2d 1076, 1089 (3d Cir. 1989).

Charles concedes that the district court conducted a sufficient inquiry. Indeed, the district court's inquiry was thorough and probing. However, Charles argues that he was not competent to waive the right to counsel and that his answers demonstrate that he did not understand the trial court's admonitions.

A. Charles' Competency

At the outset of the hearing on September 26, the day before the trial began, the district court determined that Charles was competent to stand trial and thus to make all of the important decisions associated with trial. That decision was not clearly erroneous.

The district court based its finding of competence on the testimony and conduct of Charles at the September 26, 1994 hearing and on a July 11, 1994 report written by Dr. Burger. Dr. Burger saw Charles on a regular basis during his prior hospitalization and after he was readmitted for study on June 14, 1994. Dr. Burger concluded that Charles was capable of understanding the proceedings and the charges against him and had the ability to consult meaningfully with his counsel. Dr. Burger's report indicated that Charles "evidenced an excellent understanding of the roles and responsibilities of court officers as well as his own obligations and rights in a court situation." (App. at 145.) He was alert and fully oriented at all times. His cognitive abilities were in the low average range for an adult. Charles suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia and had experienced intermittent severe psychotic episodes in the past, but his schizophrenia was currently in remission. Charles showed no symptoms of schizophrenia and was not taking medication. When the district court asked each side whether it wished to contest the conclusions reached in Dr. Burger's report, neither Charles nor his counsel sought to do so.

We are mindful that Dr. Burger's report was two and one half months old when the September 26, 1994 hearing took place and that some of Charles' responses at the hearing were rambling. *fn2 We cannot say, however, that Charles' responses as a whole were inconsistent with Dr. Burger's observations and opinions. The district court observed Charles first-hand at the hearing the day before the trial began and was in the best position to observe Charles, evaluate his mental state, and determine whether a follow-up evaluation was necessary. We decline to second guess the district court's determination.

B. Charles' Responses Concerning the Assistance of Counsel

Charles' responses to the district court's questions were sufficient to demonstrate that his waiver of the right to assistance of counsel was knowing and intelligent. Considering Charles' history of mental illness and limited education, the district court appropriately conducted an inquiry that was especially thorough and probing.

First, the court made sure that Charles understood the purpose of the hearing:

THE COURT: Now, I am going through a procedure here to determine whether or not you fully understand the consequences of your expressed desire to proceed with the representation of yourself --

CHARLES: Yes, sir.

THE COURT: -- and that you are doing that voluntarily and intelligently. Do you understand that?

CHARLES: Yes, sir, very intelligently. (App. at 227.)

Next, the court asked Charles why he was dissatisfied with his appointed counsel. Charles made clear that he was concerned that his appointed counsel was hostile to the idea of arguing self defense and that he wanted the public to know that he was not insane:

CHARLES: Your Honor, my dissatisfaction is based upon being in the United States and speaking with doctors and prison officials and other people that has heard the nature of the offense and why it was committed, and they are totally in disagreement with Mr. Brusch's way of handling it, that I cannot win. They are stating that based upon my defense, they don't see why any attorney would resist presenting it. And that is what it is based upon.

Also, to the interest of the public, who I don't owe no explanation, but I still think I do, you know. I went to school here, and teachers and things like that, I have heard, "Well, Mr. Charles is charged with murder, and they think Mr. Charles is crazy and" -- this and that. I think I owe them an explanation to clear their mind of any doubt that I am anybody different to who they have known before.

* * *

CHARLES: [My attorney] has never seen my side of the case.

THE COURT: Well, I understand that's what you're saying. But apparently, from what I also understand you are saying, was that he, in the course of representing you, made the observation to you that the procedure you are willing to follow, in his opinion, could not be in your best interest. Isn't that what you are telling me?

CHARLES: Yes. . . . It might be, it might hurt -- it might hamper me, it might hurt me in the long run, but it's in the best of my interest, what I want to present. (App. at 227-29.)

Next the court made sure that Charles understood that he was not as competent as an attorney:

THE COURT: Well, certainly, you realize that you are not as competent as a lawyer would be, insofar as the rules of procedure --


THE COURT: -- and in terms of meeting issues raised by the government. Do you agree with that statement?

CHARLES: Yes, but that's what I would like [Mr. Brusch] to sit there for.

THE COURT: Pardon?

CHARLES: Any issue that the government raises that I don't understand, that's what I'm going to have him there ...

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