april 16, 2012
WASHINGTON — Albert Holland Jr., a death row inmate in Florida, has no legal training and seems to be suffering from a mental illness — “perhaps a disorder involving paranoia or delusional thoughts,” a federal judge wrote recently.
Albert Holland Jr. won a new trial in a capital case.
But he turns out to be a pretty good lawyer. Two years ago, in allowing Mr. Holland a fresh chance to make his case after his court-appointed lawyer blew a crucial deadline, the Supreme Court praised Mr. Holland’s legal acumen. Indeed, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote, Mr. Holland had a better understanding of the complicated time limits for challenging death sentences in federal court than his lawyer had.
Mr. Holland made good use of the opportunity the Supreme Court gave him. A couple of weeks ago, he won a decision granting him a new trial. In the process, he opened a window on the astoundingly spotty quality of court-appointed counsel in capital cases.
The lawyer whose work the justices had considered was the least of it; he had merely been unresponsive and incompetent. Mr. Holland’s earlier lawyers had failed him in much more colorful ways.
Consider Kenneth Delegal, who was assigned to defend Mr. Holland at a 1996 retrial on charges that he killed a Pompano Beach police officer in 1990. Mr. Delegal was removed from the case after being sent to a mental health facility. Later, the two men would see each other at the Broward County jail, where Mr. Delegal was held on drug and domestic violence charges.
The next lawyer, James Lewis, was a friend of Mr. Delegal’s and had shared office space with him. When Mr. Delegal went to court after his removal from Mr. Holland’s case, seeking to be paid about $40,000 for his work on it, the new lawyer testified on behalf of the old one, saying the fees had been “reasonable and necessary.”
Mr. Delegal died of a drug overdose about a month after the fee hearing, and a local paper asked his former colleague Mr. Lewis about his troubles. “I heard some rumors,” Mr. Lewis said, “but I chose not to know.”
This series of lawyers, Judge Patricia A. Seitz of Federal District Court in Miami wrote this month, “does assist in understanding why someone, perhaps predisposed to paranoia due to a mental disturbance, may have wanted self-representation over court-appointed counsel.”
In granting Mr. Holland a new trial, Judge Seitz ruled that a state judge had violated Mr. Holland’s rights under the Sixth Amendment by refusing to let him represent himself.
At the 1996 retrial, which, like the first trial, ended in a murder conviction and a death sentence, Mr. Holland asked to represent himself at least 10 times, saying he did not trust Mr. Lewis and could in any event do a better job.
Judge Charles M. Greene of the state circuit court in Fort Lauderdale denied the requests, saying Mr. Holland did not have “any specific legal training.” That is not the constitutional standard; indeed, the Supreme Court has said that “technical legal knowledge” is not required.
The relevant questions, Judge Seitz wrote, were whether Mr. Holland understood that he had a right to a court-appointed lawyer and whether he was mentally competent to decide to waive that right.
When Mr. Holland was allowed to address the court, he seemed to make sense. He said, for instance, that Mr. Lewis “denied me effective assistance of counsel because his loyalty was impaired.”
Mr. Holland also told the court that his legal research indicated that his indictment on a charge of attempted felony murder was flawed because there was no such crime in Florida. (“It is noteworthy,” Judge Seitz wrote, that “this statement had a factual basis.” Indeed, the Florida Supreme Court had said as much in 1995 in an unrelated case.)
At other times, Mr. Holland exhibited a certain flair, though it was perhaps not to everyone’s taste.
“From what I have seen in the evidence,” he told Judge Greene, “Ray Charles could come in here and represent himself, and Stevie Wonder, so I don’t need much legal training to do all that.”
Judge Greene acknowledged that Mr. Holland had “voiced concerns and issues in a most eloquent manner” and had expressed himself in a “very coherent and organized manner.”
When it came time to sentence Mr. Holland to death, Judge Greene said he gave little weight to Mr. Holland’s history of mental illness, though he had twice been found not guilty by reason of insanity for robberies in Washington and had been involuntarily hospitalized in the 1980s for four years.
As proof that Mr. Holland was no longer mentally ill, Judge Greene praised him as an able advocate who had “correctly argued case law and factual issues to the court.” His legal skills, then, were proof that he was fit to be executed — but not good enough that he be allowed to defend himself.
These days, Mr. Holland is represented by Todd G. Scher, a Miami Beach lawyer who won in the Supreme Court and persuaded Judge Seitz to order a new trial. A spokesman for the Florida attorney general’s office said prosecutors would ask Judge Seitz to reconsider her ruling.
Mr. Scher said he did not know who would represent Mr. Holland at a retrial. For now, he said, what was clear was that a federal judge had found “a blatant Sixth Amendment violation.”
“It shows that he was right,” Mr. Scher said of his client. “He had concerns about his prior series of lawyer, and his concerns turned out to be valid.”