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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Cmelik Law PLC

Criminal defense attorney: race, mental health, and self-representation play role in burglary appeal

The second highest appeals court in Iowa has affirmed the criminal conviction of an African American who represented himself and claimed both a lack of racial equity in the jury pool and willful blindness to his mental health status.

An Iowa criminal jury convicted James Deyo Robinson, an African American, of burglary in the first degree, willful injury causing serious injury, first-degree harassment, and false imprisonment. After seeking discharge of five court appointed criminal defense attorneys, he represented himself with a “stand-by” lawyer during trial. At jury selection, Mr. Robinson himself challenged the jury pool as unrepresentative of African Americans as well as a potential juror who revealed that he or she was a crime victim. He cited directly to the correct precedent for his racial inequity challenge, State v. Plain, 898 N.W.2d 801 (Iowa 2017). Though the trial court added African Americans to render the jury pool “somewhat inclusive,” once he was convicted Mr. Robinson appealed arguing additional African Americans from other trial pools was insufficient. Moreover, the crime victim not only stayed in the pool, he or she landed on the jury.

Last week, Iowa’s second highest court rendered its criminal appeal decision denying all of Mr. Robinson’s claims.

Hon. Judge Sharon Greer, Iowa Court of Appeals, writing for a three-judge panel, summarized the case as follows: Mr. Robinson repeatedly clashed with his five successive attorneys. They reported these interactions to the lower trial court and ultimately each moved to withdraw noting a breakdown in communication that effectively ended their respective attorney-client relationship. According to the opinion, some of Mr. Robinson's attorneys reported his accusation that they were conspiring with one another to convict him. On each request to discharge a particular criminal defense attorney, the Court agreed and appointed substitute counsel. On the last occasion, the Defendant sought to represent himself.

Two of his attorneys sought to pause the proceedings against Mr. Robinson to determine whether he was competent to stand trial. The first mental health professional to interview Mr. Robinson was not initially aware of allegations Mr. Robinson levied against his attorneys and found his interaction with Mr. Robinson rational. The doctor therefore concluded that Mr. Robinson was thus competent to stand trial. He amended the report, however, when he learned of the conspiratorial accusations Mr. Robinson allegedly made against his attorneys and concluded that Mr. Robinson suffered from delusional disorder and should be treated rather than incarcerated. He noted that his mistake of not recognizing the disorder on first impression was that delusional patients can sometimes mask their illness when not confronted.

The District Court initially agreed. Mr. Robinson was involuntarily committed, treated, and evaluated a second time to determine whether he was now competent to stand trial on the Iowa criminal charges. A second doctor concluded that Mr. Robinson had recovered and was now competent to stand trial. The Court resumed the prosecution against Mr. Robinson. The jury convicted him.

On appeal, Mr. Robinson argued that he never should have been allowed to represent himself because he was also not even competent to stand trial. The appellate court opined that Mr. Robinson failed to bring additional evidence either before or during the jury trial to refute the pretrial finding that he was now competent to stand trial. It noted that competency is presumed by the court and the criminal defense must prove, by a preponderance of evidence, that the defendant is incompetent to stand trial. The Court noted that self-represented defendants get no more free pass than Iowa criminal defense attorneys to miss their opportunity to object.

During jury selection, Mr. Robinson also objected to the jury pool as almost entirely white. The District Court Judge presiding over the trial recessed and checked with the Clerk of Court regarding the composition of the jury pool, learning at that 256 potential jurors reported for jury duty on the date of trial of which only 13 self-identified as African-American. The Judge proposed adding some potential jurors from another panel unselected for unrelated juries to make Robinson’s panel “at least somewhat inclusive of African Americans,” according to the opinion. The trial court asked Mr. Robinson whether that was an acceptable solution and Mr. Robinson allegedly “acquiesced”—thus not persisting in his objection. This acquiescence was key to the appellate opinion even though Mr. Robinson represented himself. It was this failure to persist in his objection—a procedural misstep—that the appellate court seized on to reject his claim of an unrepresentative jury pool, noting:

“Here, Robinson raised a fair cross-section challenge to the court, and the court provided him with a remedy. Afterward, Robinson was given another chance to weigh in and he acquiesced.” The appellate court did not even get to whether the jury pool was truly unrepresentative for this reason, noting, "[w]e do not consider this further."

For now, the Iowa criminal conviction and jury verdict will stand, but Mr. Robinson can seek further appellate review, so expect this case to remain in the courts for the foreseeable future. Stay tuned.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had not involvement in the Robinson case.

If you are seeking a good criminal defense attorney to explore your best options in an Iowa criminal prosecution, contact us. We want to be on your list of candidates.


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