R.I. Supreme Court rejects appeal against self-representation
The Rhode Island Supreme Court has upheld a person’s right to represent themself, even as it encourages judges to discourage the practice. (Getty image)
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Milford, Massachusetts man who said he should not have been permitted to represent himself in court during his 2019 jury trial on six felony assault charges.
Edward Delossantos had been cautioned multiple times against acting as his own attorney when he told a Providence Superior Court judge he wanted to fire his lawyer. Delossantos was convicted of five of those counts.
In a March 13 decision written by Justice William Robinson, the court unanimously rejected an appeal from Delossantos after being found guilty of five felony counts for assaulting his former girlfriend and her sister in Woonsocket in 2016. During the third day of the trial in Providence Superior Court, Delossantos told the judge he wished to fire his attorney and represent himself — which is allowed under the Sixth Amendment — because he didn’t believe his counsel provided a fair trial on his behalf.
The judge had warned him multiple times against doing this.
On appeal, Delossantos said his choice to waive counsel should be invalid because it was “not timely and because it was not made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently,” according to court documents.
The State Supreme Court disagreed, with Robinson writing that Delossantos’ decision to discharge “was made at a relatively advanced stage of the proceedings” and he had “been made aware of the trial justice’s advice to the contrary.”
In federal court, a defendant is required to keep their attorney after a jury has been sworn. But this is not the case in Rhode Island’s state courts, said Kara Hoopis Manosh, a Providence-based criminal defense appellate attorney. She said this ruling will set a precedent.
“I think this will be the case [that] trial judges pull out any time a defendant does this,” Manosh said. “The decision to proceed pro-se is very important.”
The state’s Public Defender’s Office, which presented the case on behalf of Delossantos, declined to comment on the ruling.
All appeals from criminal convictions must be taken up by the high court. “Every case gets called for argument and gets a full decision,” Manosh said.
At the time of the trial in Superior Court, Delossantos had a 10th-grade education, could read and write English, and had no past or present mental health ailments. The judge asked Delossantos if he had any previous experience with the criminal justice system. Delossantos responded that he had been in attendance at a trial in Massachusetts and that he also had some knowledge of the trial process through watching television.
The judge also asked the defendant whether anyone had forced him to make the decision about representing himself. He replied, “No, I just see it as my life on the line — I am fighting for my life.”
Though he represented himself, Delossantos was able to keep his attorney as standby counsel and was allowed to confer with him prior to closing arguments.
The name of the attorney was not disclosed in the Supreme Court ruling.
Ultimately, Delossantos was found guilty of five of six charges against him. He was found not guilty of assault with a dangerous motor vehicle — a very big hurdle to clear, Manosh noted.
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