Criminal Procedure - Supreme Judicial Court Delineates Method for Application of Forfeiture to Indigent Criminal Defendant - Commonwealth V. Means

By Ball, Caitlin E. | Suffolk University Law Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Criminal Procedure - Supreme Judicial Court Delineates Method for Application of Forfeiture to Indigent Criminal Defendant - Commonwealth V. Means


Ball, Caitlin E., Suffolk University Law Review


Criminal Procedure--Supreme Judicial Court Delineates Method for Application of Forfeiture to Indigent Criminal Defendant--Commonwealth v. Means, 907 N.E.2d 646 (Mass. 2009)

The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the fundamental right that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." (1) Nevertheless, indigent defendants may relinquish their court-appointed counsel by three methods: voluntary waiver, waiver by conduct, and forfeiture. (2) In Commonwealth v. Means, (3) the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) considered whether the trial court's application of the doctrine of forfeiture, a novel matter in Massachusetts, was constitutional and appropriate in comparison to well-founded guidelines set forth by other federal and state jurisdictions. (4) The SJC, taking into account its own precedent, further examined the impact of a defendant's mental incapacity on the applicability of the forfeiture doctrine. (5) In determining that employment of forfeiture was incorrect, the SJC held that the trial court unconstitutionally infringed upon a defendant's Sixth Amendment rights by denying the defendant a proper hearing prior to the exercise of the forfeiture doctrine. (6)

On March 15, 2002, a grand jury indicted Mark Means on a series of charges, including assault and battery on a correction officer and being a habitual criminal. (7) Due to his indigent status, the court appointed an attorney to assist Means with his defense. (8) In April 2004, Means filed the first in a series of motions petitioning the court to remove his appointed counsel and assign a different attorney, citing dissatisfaction with his attorney's job performance and communication efforts. (9) The court allowed trial counsel's subsequent motion to withdraw, appointing the attorney as standby counsel, but then ordered his reinstatement as trial counsel despite Means's submission of multiple pro se motions urging removal of counsel due to Means's anger management disorder. (10)

In March 2005, Means submitted an affidavit to the court stating that he had forwarded a blood-smeared letter to his court-appointed counsel threatening violence to counsel if he did not remove himself from Means's case. (11) At the August 2005 hearing on Means's March 2005 motion, the judge granted Means's motion and removed counsel, but declared Means had forfeited his right to proceed with any appointed attorney as a result of "egregious misconduct." (12) Means subsequently filed a motion for reconsideration, discussing his mental health issues and reiterating that he was incapable of representing himself at trial, which a single appeals court judge denied without a hearing. (13)

Means represented himself at the trial for his assault and battery charges, and the jury found him guilty. (14) Means immediately stood trial before the same jury on the habitual criminal charge, where he protested representing himself and once more requested that the court appoint him counsel. (15) Again, the judge denied his motion and the jury found him guilty. (16) Means appealed to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, which rejected his petition, and then to the SJC, questioning the application of forfeiture in light of his behavior and challenging the forfeiture doctrine itself as unconstitutionally depriving him of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. (17) The SJC granted Means's appeal and overturned his convictions, holding that a hearing is required for the defendant to offer an explanation of his behavior prior to removing counsel under the forfeiture doctrine. (18)

The Sixth Amendment provides all citizens the fundamental right to criminal defense counsel, regardless of their financial status, to help preserve the intrinsic human values of life and freedom. (19) Nevertheless, the right to counsel is not absolute, as defendants can surrender it by voluntary waiver, waiver by conduct, and forfeiture. …

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