Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eleventh Circuit Addresses District Court Judge's Obligations To Pro Se Criminal Defendant

In USA v. Hung Thien Ly (09-12515), the Eleventh Circuit released a published opinion addressing the obligation of a district court judge to a pro se defendant in a criminal case and held that:
In this case, we must confront a district court’s duties to a pro se criminal defendant. After the defendant, Hung Thien Ly, attempted to question witnesses in presenting his defense at trial, the district court inquired whether Ly wished to take the stand and testify on his behalf. During the ensuing colloquy, Ly exposed a misunderstanding of his right to testify. He believed that he could testify on direct examination only if he was being questioned by an attorney; he was clearly ignorant of his ability to provide narrative testimony. Throughout this court initiated colloquy, the district court did not correct Ly’s misunderstanding. Rather, it merely informed him that he had an “absolute right to testify.” Ly chose not to take the stand and the jury found him guilty as charged. 
Ly argues on appeal that the district court effectively denied him his right to testify. We agree. In these circumstances, particularly where the district court initiates a colloquy with the defendant regarding his right to testify, the district court is duty-bound to correct a pro se defendant’s obvious misunderstanding of his right to testify. Because this error was not harmless, Ly’s convictions cannot stand.
We stress that our holding is limited to instances in which the district court begins a colloquy regarding the defendant’s right to testify. This area of the law is not well laid, and we should proceed with caution. A district court runs the risk of denying a defendant’s right to testify by engaging in too searching of an inquiry; its questions might dampen the defendant’s protected choice. See part III.A, supra. But we think that requiring a district court to correct a pro se defendant’s basic misunderstanding regarding his fundamental right to testify is not a heavy burden when the court has already ventured into the fray and begun its colloquy with the defendant. Because the district court failed in this respect, Ly’s convictions are VACATED and the case is REMANDED to the district court.


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