Court: Lack of legal knowledge not enough to bar self-representation

LITTLE ROCK — A lack of legal knowledge is not sufficient reason to bar a criminal defendant from representing himself or herself, the state Court of Appeals said Wednesday.

The court ordered a new trial for Robert Ciesielski, who was convicted of first-degree and second-degree terroristic threatening in Pulaski County Circuit Court in July 2013 and sentenced, with an enhancement for being a habitual offender, to 15 years in prison.

Ciesielski argued on appeal that he asked before his trial to represent himself and that Circuit Judge Barry Sims erroneously denied his request. The state attorney general’s office conceded that error was committed and supported Ciesielski’s request for a new trial.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals said in its opinion Wednesday that according to a courtroom transcript, Sims responded to Ciesielski’s request to represent himself by saying, “You don’t have the ability to do that.”

Ciesielski replied that the victim, his lawyer — who had withdrawn from the case — and the judge were all against him and said, “I don’t need three people against me.”

Sims told Ciesielski, “I’m trying to do everything I can to help you out, man,” and asked if he had any legal training.

“I’ve been in and out of the system quite awhile,” Ciesielski replied.

Sims asked Ciesielski how many jury trials he had been through and whether he knew when to object and make motions.

Ciesielski told the judge he had been through one jury trial and said, “I know I’m going to lose anyway.”

“Public defender appointed,” Sims said.

The Court of Appeals said in its opinion Wednesday that when a defendant seeks to waive the right to an attorney, the trial judge is supposed to determine whether the request is made knowingly and intelligently and warn the defendant of the dangers involved.

“Here, the record shows that the trial court made no inquiry into appellant’s background and issued no specific warning of the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation; instead the court limited its inquiry to appellant’s technical legal knowledge before denying his request to represent himself,” Judge John Pittman said in the opinion, adding that “such knowledge is not relevant in deciding whether a waiver of counsel was knowingly and intelligently made.”