HELENA - The state Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for a Missoula County man who pleaded guilty to eight felony and three misdemeanor charges, saying the lower court failed to adequately address whether his request to represent himself was voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently made.
According to court records, William M. Halley was arrested in January 2004 - in the midst of a contentious divorce - and charged with five counts of felony intimidation, two counts of felony stalking, one count of misdemeanor stalking, one count of misdemeanor violation of privacy in communications, one count of misdemeanor unlawful restraint, and one count of felony tampering with witnesses.
A public defender was assigned to his case.
Two months later, Halley sent a letter to the court complaining of ineffective counsel. In May 2004, he sent another letter to the court, saying his public defender wasn't answering his letters and refused to cooperate with his requests pertaining to his case. Halley said he wanted to waive his right to counsel and represent himself.
District Judge John Larson consented, relieving Halley's appointed attorney of her duties and issuing an order allowing Halley to represent himself.
On Aug. 26, 2004, Halley entered into a plea agreement under which he agreed to plead guilty to all counts. After he had spent almost a year in jail, the District Court sentenced him to 40 years in prison, all suspended.
In March 2006, Halley appealed, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel.
Larson denied the appeal, saying Halley had voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently waived his right to counsel and therefore could no longer claim he was deprived of his right to counsel based on ineffective assistance.
Halley took his case to the state Supreme Court. And in an opinion issued Tuesday, the high court sided with him, saying Larson failed to make an adequate inquiry into Halley's written request for substitute counsel.
"In the case before us, the District Court conducted no inquiry whatsoever into Halley's written allegations of ineffective assistance submitted on March 25," the high court wrote.
Defendants have a constitutional right to represent themselves, the Supreme Court said. "However, because such action results in the loss of many benefits associated with the right to counsel, the trial court must ensure the defendant is competent to abandon his right to assistance of counsel and proceed pro se."
In addition, a defendant's relinquishment of his right to counsel must be made "voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently," the Supreme Court wrote. In Halley's case, "there is no evidence that the District Court made any inquiry of Halley before granting Halley's request to waive his right to counsel."
The Supreme Court vacated Halley's guilty pleas, reversed Larson's denial of his appeal, and remanded the matter for retrial.