2.3 A Downward Spiral

Book Two / 3

Since assignment of Terence Myers’ case to our court we had made repeated attempts to resolve the problems he was experiencing in custody.  The judge had made a specific attorney available as standby counsel in order to provide logistical assistance, and he had brought all the responsible parties together in his courtroom to discuss on the record Myers’ problems with jail provisions.  He’d also agreed to authorize a mental health examination, having been convinced after several hearings that a reason existed to doubt Myers’ competence to stand trial in his current condition.

Knowing the difficulty involved in reaching the legal standard of incompetence, the judge’s concerns about Myers’ mental status centered not so much on his legal competence to proceed to trial but on his practical competence to represent himself, despite a constitutional right to do so.  Myers’ concerns, on the other hand, were just the opposite.  He’d been demanding an evaluation to prove his incompetence to proceed to trial, but insisting on his competence to represent himself once he got there.

Although the illogic of Myers’ position seemed to escape him, it was wreaking havoc with his case.  To the judge, Myers appeared competent based on both prongs of the legal standard:  he clearly knew the fundamentals of criminal trial proceedings, and he had been assisting his own defense for some months now.  His ability to represent himself before a jury, however, with all the complicated rules and procedures of trial, was not as obvious.  With each consecutive appearance in court Myers’ agitation from the anxiety he was experiencing on his own challenged more of his self-control, threatening any meaningful implementation of trial strategy.

The judge had advised Myers at the end of the last hearing that by law all proceedings were now stayed pending the outcome of the competency evaluation.  He had no discretion to exercise on that issue.  He was simply prohibited from taking action in a case where the competency of the defendant was at issue.

Nevertheless, despite obtaining the mental health evaluation he’d been seeking, Myers had left our courtroom that day angry and vengeful.  Three days later he drafted a motion to the court both to remove his newly appointed standby counsel — his third, and the one he had specially requested — and for reassignment to another court.  The paperwork reached me a few days later, and I set aside some time at the end of the day to review the file.

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With his motion to the court Myers had included a proposed order, and another typed letter.  In the letter he complained of the disrespect he’d been shown in court at the last hearing.  He also insisted that a conflict had now arisen with the attorney.

Although the judge had appointed the attorney merely as standby counsel, to assist only in those matters with which Myers needed help, Myers was complaining that the attorney was not showing him “the fire or desire” that he required.  “By retaining a public defender,” he explained to the judge, “it may assure the courts with a great deal of flexibility during legal proceedings but it does not provide or guarantee instant or absolute gratification for the defendant.”

Unwittingly, Myers had provided in his letter just a little more evidence in support of the judge’s doubts about his capacity for self-representation.  Myers’ identification of an attorney’s role as one of providing either instant or absolute gratification to his client revealed that he was already failing the prong that required him to identify the appropriate role of an attorney.  More seriously, however, he was setting himself up for repeated discouragement, renewed anger, and escalating anxiety.

By now I had observed Myers in court on several occasions.  I had received his letters, deciphered his requests, and conveyed them to the judge in an effort to determine together how best to proceed.  Before every hearing we discussed the status of Myers’ position, trying to feel our way through an increasingly dangerous situation.  We could see his condition breaking down with each appearance in court.  We watched his mental condition deteriorate from the stress of incarceration, of maneuvering through jail procedures, and defending himself against the apparatus of the state.  All defendants experience this strain, of course, but some — like Myers — arrive in the system more likely to be crushed by its pressure.

Having monitored Myers’ situation for a few months now, and having seen his reaction to all the rules of incarceration, I suspected that his expectations of “absolute gratification” had not been met outside of the jail either, and that they had contributed to the quick temper he’d claimed was behind the assault on his brother.  We’d observed several occasions in open court when Myers’ frustrations had exploded upon a mere suggestion that he allow established procedures to run their course before requesting extraordinary relief.  On these occasions the obstinacy he developed, and the righteousness he displayed, revealed a man with a strong sense of entitlement, but also a history of being rebuffed.

It was not that he wasn’t sharp.  In his letters to the court Myers appeared creative and bright.  He’d quote, among others, the authors John Keats and James Baldwin.  He referenced historical events, both popular and high culture, and broad notions of human and civil rights.  Although his spelling was not perfect, his prose was fervent, expressive, and educated.

Yet he remained incapable on some fundamental level of developing reasonable expectations, or engaging in a rational analysis of his own needs with respect for the needs of others.  He appeared intensely frustrated by a recognition of his intelligence alongside an obvious inability to succeed in a way his intelligence should allow.  Despite any gifts of insight or creativity he might possess, he simply could not engage in reciprocal conversation or constructive interactions.

Moreover, his constant interpretation of offers of assistance as disrespect toward his intelligence supported his belief that others automatically dismissed his abilities.  He’d write disdainfully about the inability of both the judge and his standby attorney to be of any assistance to him despite their knowledge and positions of authority in the courts.  He appeared insecure of his actions in front of others, and at the same time angry with those whom he perceived as less intelligent than he, yet somehow more successful with their lives.

Myers’ insistence on representing himself appeared rooted in these insecurities, and in his consequent need for recognition and respect.  He could not be swayed from self-representation despite the toll it was taking on his mental health and on his defense.  In his letters to the court he referred frequently to the frustrations he felt when he believed that the judge was ignoring him, or not taking him seriously.  As if he had experienced years of trying to get others’ attention, and to convince them of his importance, he maneuvered constantly in court to force the direct attention of the judge.

For instance, Myers could not understand that judges intentionally avoid providing opportunities for a defendant to weaken his case by speaking in front of a prosecutor or jury.  Whenever a defendant is represented by an attorney, or has standby counsel available for questioning, a judge will address the attorney exclusively if possible.  This is meant as a protection for the defendant, not a denial of his authority or humanity.

Myers’ insecurities, however, caused him to perceive only disrespect whenever the judge directed his questions to his standby attorney instead of to him.  He’d initiate a lengthy rant about the injustice of the courts, and circle through every judge he’d appeared before, condemning them all.  The judge would wait patiently as Myers gestured and railed.  Eventually, needing to move the proceedings along, he’d attempt to interject a question or a comment, but Myers could not be redirected.

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In his most recent letter to the court Myers had written of his inability to get along with his standby attorney in a manner supporting an inference that his real issues lay with his need for respect from the judge.  Handwritten entirely in capital letters this time, emphasizing his anger, the letter expressed the disrespect he had felt when the judge “began communicating with the standby counsel and the prosecutor as if the defendants position in the court was no longer recognized.”

Myers was referring to the judge’s attempts in court, on the day he’d authorized a competency evaluation, to shield Myers from a record that could be used against him by speaking to the standby attorney.  His efforts, however, had tripped Myers’ hair-triggered insecurities instead.  Myers had left the hearing that day incensed from the disrespect he believed he’d been shown from the moment of his arraignment whenever a judge had looked past him in court and turned to address his attorney instead.

Referring to himself in the third person, Myers wrote now of the judge’s questions to his standby attorney in court at the last hearing:  “This was the exact same scenario the defendant had engaged in with [the other judge].  A complete and total dismissal of the defendants presence or position within the spectrum of the court.”  The only way he could force a judge to respect him, he had determined, was to proceed entirely alone.  If judges were going to ignore him whenever he had an attorney present, then he would refuse all attorneys.  And without a standby attorney next to him in court — he reasoned — he could force the judge to speak directly to him.

Complicating matters further, as his letter made clear, Myers’ expectations of absolute gratification did not stop with the services of his standby attorney, or even those of the court.  They extended also to the jail staff on whom he had to rely for telephone access and writing paper.  Predictably, just as his expectations of defense counsel were unrealistic, his demands for service from jail staff were also inappropriate.  He was detained in a system of incarceration designed to deliver the minimum required of anything available, often after weeks of waiting.

In a letter we would receive in May, Myers elaborated on his insistence upon the provision of goods and services free from malfunction and delay.  “My point is,” he instructed the judge, “if a service is authorized and provided, then that service or provision should be fully and completely functional.”  Concluding with the perfunctory sense of command he exhibited frequently in his letters, he pronounced, “I want and expect the extent of the services provided to me (completely) and NOT an abridged version.”

If Myers’ expectations had been unrealistic outside of jail, where he had at least some control over the components of their gratification, inside the jail, and without assistance of counsel, they were simply impossible to meet.  Most importantly, however, they were contributing to a steady decline in his health.  Combining high expectations of service in jail and in court with an inability to perceive responsibility for the reasons he was there, as well as a debilitating rage fueled by each perceived setback and a refusal to work with an attorney who could help him, the defendant was closing the case against him before it could even get to trial.

2.4 The Next Shoe Drops