Wright v. State, Supreme Court Case No. 20S-LW-260

Docket NºSupreme Court Case No. 20S-LW-260
Citation168 N.E.3d 244
Case DateMay 04, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of Indiana

168 N.E.3d 244

Zachariah Brian WRIGHT, Appellant (Defendant below)
v.
STATE of Indiana, Appellee (Plaintiff below)

Supreme Court Case No. 20S-LW-260

Supreme Court of Indiana.

Argued: November 5, 2020
Filed May 4, 2021


ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: Michael D. Gross, Lebanon, Indiana

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Theodore E. Rokita, Attorney General of Indiana, Caroline G. Templeton, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, Indiana

Goff, Justice.

The Sixth Amendment right to counsel in a criminal trial speaks "an obvious truth." Gideon v. Wainwright , 372 U.S. 335, 344, 83 S.Ct. 792, 9 L.Ed.2d 799 (1963). It marks the very "foundation for our adversary system," ensures "fundamental human rights of life and liberty," and promotes our "universal sense of justice." Martinez v. Ryan , 566 U.S. 1, 12, 132 S.Ct. 1309, 182 L.Ed.2d 272 (2012) ; Johnson v. Zerbst , 304 U.S. 458, 462, 58 S.Ct. 1019, 82 L.Ed. 1461 (1938) ; Betts v. Brady , 316 U.S. 455, 476, 62 S.Ct. 1252, 86 L.Ed. 1595 (1942) (Black, J., dissenting). But through the looking glass of Gideon stands a corollary right—a constitutional paradox—to waive the assistance of counsel and "to conduct one's own defense in propria persona. " Faretta v. California , 422 U.S. 806, 816, 95 S.Ct. 2525, 45 L.Ed.2d 562 (1975). Indeed, despite their common constitutional foundation, the right to counsel and the right to self-representation serve distinct and often conflicting interests—the latter protecting a defendant's personal autonomy, the former guarding the integrity of our criminal justice system. We confront this tension in the case before us today.

The defendant here insists that the trial court erred by denying his request to self-represent. We agree that his waiver of the right to counsel was knowing and voluntary. But because his waiver was neither unequivocal nor intelligent, we hold that the trial court properly denied his request to self-represent. And because neither his character nor the nature of his offenses dictates otherwise, we hold that the defendant's sentence was not inappropriate. Thus, we affirm the trial court's decision on both grounds.

Facts and Procedural History

During the early morning hours of June 18, 2017, Zachariah Wright, a nineteen-year-old on probation for felony burglary, committed a string of offenses in Lebanon, Indiana. The crime spree began with Wright's theft of a bike from the home of Darrin Demaree. From there, Wright broke into the home of Lynnetta Boice and Rick Barnard, where he stole another bike, along with sundry items he found in the garage and in a car parked in the home's driveway.

Meanwhile, an elderly couple, Sonja and Max Foster, lay asleep just a block away in the home they had shared for nearly fifty years. Sometime just after sunrise, Sonja awoke to find a tall, obscure figure—later identified as Wright—standing in the doorway to their bedroom. Before Sonja could react, Wright walked quickly across the room, leaned over the bed, and stabbed Max repeatedly. As Max struggled to deflect the blade, Sonja retaliated, striking Wright on the back with a baseball bat. Wright turned to Sonja in response, slashing her across the face. In shock, Sonja fled downstairs, bleeding profusely and unsure of where to turn. Wright followed Sonja downstairs to confront her. Sonja, having gathered her wits, escaped through the front door after distracting her attacker. But Wright caught up with her once

168 N.E.3d 253

again, pushing her to the ground and attempting to set her clothes on fire with a cigarette lighter. Unsuccessful, Wright fled the scene, disposing of his boots in a nearby pond. Sonja made her way to a neighbor's house to call for help. Max, however, succumbed to his wounds, having been stabbed over thirty times.

The State charged Wright with, among other things, murder, level-3 felony criminal confinement, level-6 felony theft, level-5 felony burglary, and level-2 felony attempted burglary.1 At his initial hearing in late June 2017, Wright requested and received a court-appointed attorney. When the State sought the death penalty a few months later, the trial court appointed new, capital-qualified counsel. See Ind. Crim R. 24(B). Wright initially raised no objection to his newly appointed lawyers. But in November 2017, he wrote several letters and motions to the court demanding a speedy trial, seeking to withdraw a motion for continuance that his attorneys had filed, and asking the court to appoint new counsel. In a pro se "Application for Pauper Counsel," Wright demanded that his "new attorney" visit him immediately and to refrain from filing motions without his permission. The court denied each of these requests.

In January 2018, Wright, by counsel, notified the court of his preference to represent himself. At a hearing the following month, the court engaged in an extended colloquy with Wright. When asked to explain his position, Wright expressed having had no problem with his first appointed attorney, with whom he admittedly "got along." Tr. Vol. 4, p. 45. But his new lawyers, he believed, "were [not] acting in [his] best interest." Id. According to Wright, they had "refused" to request a "fast and speedy trial." Id. at 43. When asked to clarify, Wright stated that any "attorney paid by the court is not going to listen to anything [he had] to say." Id. at 45.

The court, in turn, advised Wright that an attorney "is trained by education" and possesses the skills necessary to investigate a criminal case, to "pick a fair and impartial jury," to interrogate witnesses, to file motions, to "properly present substantive defenses," to object to evidence, to preserve the record for appeal, and to offer mitigating arguments at sentencing. Id. at 46–49. What's more, the court stated, "death-penalty-qualified attorneys" have special training and experience. Id. at 46. The court also warned Wright that the prosecution had its own trained attorneys and that, should Wright decide to represent himself, he would not "receive any special treatment from the court" and would be held "to the same standard" as a practicing attorney. Id. at 49, 50. Proceeding without professionally trained counsel, the court emphasized, "to be blunt, can turn out to be a very bad decision in many cases." Id. at 50.

Wright responded repeatedly that he understood each of these points. He acknowledged, however, that attorneys "can be of some assistance in negotiating on [his] behalf," can "evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of [his] case," and can even give "expert advice as to whether or not seeking a plea deal might be advantageous." Id. at 48. Still, he insisted, he met "all the qualifications for going pro se," and did "not wish to have a State-appointed attorney anymore at this time." Id. at 43, 44.

168 N.E.3d 254

The court then inquired about any "knowledge or skill" Wright thought he could use to represent himself. Id. at 51. In response, Wright cited his independent study of law at the county jail and his experience in the criminal and juvenile justice system. Id. He admitted, however, to never having tried a jury trial, never having picked a jury, never having cross-examined a witness, and never having made a closing argument. Id. at 51–52. While insisting that his "attorneys ha[d]n't even challenged the death penalty," he agreed that it was "a little bit premature" to conclude "whether the death penalty could be challenged or not in this case." Id. at 46–47. At the conclusion of this colloquy, Wright referred to "five motions" he had prepared and asked the court for instructions on how to file them. Id. at 53.

The trial court denied the petition, explaining that—based on "his request that the Court appoint him counsel at the beginning of the case" and his "speculation that a private lawyer would be desirable"—Wright equivocated in his desire to self-represent. App. Vol. 2, p. 172. And while acknowledging that Wright's request was "knowingly made," the court concluded that it was "based upon a misapprehended understanding of the law, not an intelligent one." Id. at 173. Specifically, the court noted, Wright's preference to self-represent arose "from a misunderstanding of his right to a fast and speedy trial in a capital case" and confusion over his appointed-attorneys’ professional responsibilities. Id. Finally, the court concluded that Wright's desire to represent himself wasn't voluntary, as "his poverty" precluded him from retaining a private attorney, which he admittedly preferred over court-appointed counsel. Id.

The State eventually withdrew its death-penalty request, seeking instead a sentence of life in prison without parole (or LWOP). In support of its LWOP request, the State cited several aggravating factors: (1) Wright's probation status when committing murder, (2) the commission of murder while committing or attempting to commit burglary, and (3) the commission of murder while committing or attempting to commit rape. See I.C. § 35-50-2-9(b)(1)(B), (F) ; I.C. § 35-50-2-9(b)(9)(C).

Wright waived his right to a jury and the trial court found him guilty of the offenses listed above, sentencing him to an aggregate term of LWOP plus 18 years.2 In sentencing Wright, the trial court found the State had established each of its proposed aggravating factors. The court also noted the severity of the murder and the number of crimes Wright had committed. And while...

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8 practice notes
  • Parker v. State, 21A-CR-84
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • July 16, 2021
    ...makes a timely and unequivocal waiver of counsel is entitled to exercise the right of self-representation . . . .'" Wright v. State, 168 N.E.3d 244, 264 (Ind. 2021) (quoting Sherwood v. State, 717 N.E.2d 131, 135 (Ind. 1999), trans. denied). "It is undeniable that in most criminal prosecuti......
  • Parker v. State, Court of Appeals Case No. 21A-CR-84
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • July 16, 2021
    ...makes a timely and unequivocal waiver of counsel is entitled to exercise the right of self-representation ....’ " Wright v. State , 168 N.E.3d 244, 264 (Ind. 2021) (quoting Sherwood v. State , 717 N.E.2d 131, 135 (Ind. 1999), trans. denied ). "It is undeniable that in most criminal prosecut......
  • Marshall v. State, 21A-CR-1123
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • January 7, 2022
    ...383 N.E.2d 309, 314 (1978) (citing Wallace v. State, 172 Ind.App. 535, 361 N.E.2d 159 (1977), trans. denied). See also Wright v. State, 168 N.E.3d 244, 259 (Ind. 2021) ("By requiring a defendant to assert his right 'within a reasonable time prior to the day on which the trial begins,' a tri......
  • Marshall v. State, Court of Appeals Case No. 21A-CR-1123
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • January 7, 2022
    ...N.E.2d 309, 314 (1978) (citing Wallace v. State , 172 Ind. App. 535, 361 N.E.2d 159 (1977), trans. denied ). See also Wright v. State , 168 N.E.3d 244, 259 (Ind. 2021) ("By requiring a defendant to assert his right ‘within a reasonable time prior to the day on which the trial begins,’ a tri......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
8 cases
  • Parker v. State, 21A-CR-84
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • July 16, 2021
    ...makes a timely and unequivocal waiver of counsel is entitled to exercise the right of self-representation . . . .'" Wright v. State, 168 N.E.3d 244, 264 (Ind. 2021) (quoting Sherwood v. State, 717 N.E.2d 131, 135 (Ind. 1999), trans. denied). "It is undeniable that in most criminal prosecuti......
  • Parker v. State, Court of Appeals Case No. 21A-CR-84
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • July 16, 2021
    ...makes a timely and unequivocal waiver of counsel is entitled to exercise the right of self-representation ....’ " Wright v. State , 168 N.E.3d 244, 264 (Ind. 2021) (quoting Sherwood v. State , 717 N.E.2d 131, 135 (Ind. 1999), trans. denied ). "It is undeniable that in most criminal prosecut......
  • Marshall v. State, 21A-CR-1123
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • January 7, 2022
    ...383 N.E.2d 309, 314 (1978) (citing Wallace v. State, 172 Ind.App. 535, 361 N.E.2d 159 (1977), trans. denied). See also Wright v. State, 168 N.E.3d 244, 259 (Ind. 2021) ("By requiring a defendant to assert his right 'within a reasonable time prior to the day on which the trial begins,' a tri......
  • Marshall v. State, Court of Appeals Case No. 21A-CR-1123
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • January 7, 2022
    ...N.E.2d 309, 314 (1978) (citing Wallace v. State , 172 Ind. App. 535, 361 N.E.2d 159 (1977), trans. denied ). See also Wright v. State , 168 N.E.3d 244, 259 (Ind. 2021) ("By requiring a defendant to assert his right ‘within a reasonable time prior to the day on which the trial begins,’ a tri......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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