November 15, 2019

Texas Court of Appeals

Cole v. State

Nos. 09-18-00124-CR and 09-18-00125-CR         11/13/19


May a trial court require a defendant to be represented at trial by counsel because the court believes the defendant does not have the legal training needed to conduct his defense?


No. A defendant’s right to represent himself at trial cannot be denied based on the defendant’s lack of legal education or training. When a defendant voluntarily and intelligently waives his right to counsel after being admonished about the danger and disadvantages of doing so, the trial court must honor the defendant’s choice. Additionally, the decision must be honored even if doing so will likely work against the defendant’s best interests. Read Opinion.


This case serves as a reminder that the constitutional right to self-representation is equal to the constitutional right to counsel. Many trial courts have difficulties with pro se proceedings. A prosecutor might make a difference by reminding the trial judge that the right to self-representation is an important right even if the defendant will harm himself by exercising it. Remind the judge that he can ask the defendant about his mental status, any mental illness, and if he is being medicated in the jail (or on bond). If the defendant is actually trying to delay the trial by invoking his right to self-representation, make a record showing how that is so. A prosecutor can ask the court to appoint a standby lawyer to take over the case when the defendant gets frustrated or realizes the trial won’t be delayed, as is often the case. Prosecutors should ensure their courts have good admonishment scripts—a detailed list of pitfalls may be more persuasive than simply repeating that self-representation is a bad idea.