March 3, 2015 – A man accused of killing the mother of his children with an ice pick was not allowed to testify in his own defense at the first-degree murder trial. Recently, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Eddie Anthony forfeited his right to testify.
“Anthony forfeited his right to testify by displaying stubborn and defiant conduct that presented a serious threat to both the fairness and reliability of the criminal trial process and the preservation of dignity, order, and decorum in the courtroom,” wrote Justice Patrick Crooks for a 5-2 majority in State v. Anthony, 2015 WI 20 (March 3, 2015).
Right to Testify Not Absolute
Anthony, accused of stabbing the victim 45 times with an ice pick with children home, did not deny killing the victim but said he acted in self-defense. In addition to testimony supporting his self-defense claim, Anthony wanted to tell the jury that, in his view, he was wrongly convicted for robbery as an African-American man in the 1960s, and his race was now motivating the first-degree intentional homicide charge against him.
Anthony apparently believed this testimony, and other testimony about his life, would help his case. But the trial court judge deemed his intended testimony to be irrelevant.
When Anthony refused to drop the alleged wrongful conviction from his intended testimony, the judge ruled that he wouldn’t allow him to testify at all. The judge noted that Anthony could make things worse for himself if the judge cut him off on the stand.
Ultimately, the jury convicted Anthony and he was sentenced to life in prison. An appeals court upheld the conviction and the supreme court majority affirmed.
Anthony argued that his right to testify was absolute and his trial counsel was ineffective for not making that argument. But the supreme court disagreed.
The supreme court noted that criminal defendants have a fundamental constitutional right to testify under several provisions of the U.S. Constitution, but it’s not absolute. It can be restricted if false, irrelevant, and subject to restriction, even if relevant.
“We now conclude that the right to testify may, in appropriate cases, be subject to forfeiture where conduct incompatible with the assertion of the right is at issue,” wrote Crooks, examining a U.S. Supreme Court case – Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 337 (1970) – in which the court held that disruptive defendants can lose a right to testify.
The majority rejected Anthony’s view that defendants can lose the right to testify by disorderly or disruptive conduct, but only if it warrants removal from the court.
Anthony argued that, in his case, the trial judge refused to let him testify based on the possibility of disruption, amounting to a preemptive application of Allen.
But the supreme court noted that testimony may be limited to accommodate legitimate interests in the criminal trial process, under Rock v. Arkansas, 483. U.S. 44 (1987).
“Surely, the preservation of dignity, order, and decorum in the courtroom constitutes a legitimate interest in the criminal trial process that may outweigh a defendant’s right to testify in certain circumstances,” Justice Crooks wrote for the majority.
“[W]e concur with the State that a circuit court need not remove a defendant from the courtroom in order to justify a denial of the right to testify,” Crooks explained.
The majority noted that Anthony’s intended testimony could have misled and confused the jury. For instance, allowing him to testify about what he believed was a wrongful robbery conviction in the 1960s may have required the state to prove otherwise.
“To further complicate matters, a trial within a trial likely would have constituted a needless consumption of time,” Justice Crooks wrote.
The majority noted that trial courts have a legitimate interest in preserving dignity, decorum, and order in the court, and the record showed that Anthony posed a serious threat to that interest, becoming outwardly angered and enraged in court proceedings.
The majority also ruled that even if it was error to refuse Anthony’s testimony, a violation of a criminal defendant’s right to testify is subject to harmless error analysis.
“Even if we assumed error in this case, we would conclude that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt given the overwhelming evidence of Anthony’s guilt,” wrote Justice Crooks, rejecting Anthony’s argument that violating a constitutional right to testify about relevant evidence is not subject to harmless error review.
Dissent and Concurrence
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley concurred. She said it was error to exclude the defendant’s testimony, but the error was harmless under the harmless error analysis.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson dissented, concluding Anthony was unconstitutionally deprived of a right to testify and the violation was not subject to harmless error review.
“I conclude that the circuit court’s complete denial of the defendant’s right to testify in the present case, which prevented the defendant from testifying to relevant evidence regarding self-defense, constitutes a disproportionate response to the dangers posed by the defendant’s unruly conduct,” the chief justice wrote in her dissenting opinion.