By Rose Hernandez
Steven Lorenzo’s penalty phase began this week in a Tampa court room, he is accused of killing two men, nearly 20 years ago… there’s just one more issue with this case, Mr. Lorenzo is representing himself.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that, “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall . . . have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” The right to counsel applies to everyone regardless of their ability to pay. When a person does not have the ability to pay for private counsel, Section 27.52, Florida Statutes, provides he or she may apply for indigent status before the court. If the court determines that the applicant is indigent based on the criteria provided in Section 27.52, the court shall appoint the Office of the Public Defender to represent the individual. If the Office of the Public Defender has a conflict of interest, the court must appoint conflict-free counsel. Generally, it is a very bad idea to go pro se (i.e., to represent yourself), so taking advantage of the right to counsel is the best way to ensure your rights are protected and that you are able to get the best result possible.
However, there are some people who still choose to represent themselves. When a person requests to represent himself or herself, the court must hold a hearing and conduct a Faretta inquiry (i.e., ask the defendant a series of questions) before allowing it. It is called a Faretta inquiry, because it stems from the case Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975). The Faretta inquiry includes the following questions or areas of inquiry:
- What is the defendant’s age, education, and background?
- What is the defendant’s mental condition?
- Does the defendant understand the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation?
- What is the defendant’s experience in the criminal justice system?
If after conducting the Faretta inquiry, the court finds the defendant is knowingly and intelligently waiving his or her right to counsel, the court will allow the defendant to represent himself. But, again, just because a person can represent oneself, does not mean one should. Case in point – Mr. Steven Lorenzo.
I am concerned about the fact that Mr. Lorenzo repeatedly asked for the death penalty during the sentencing phase of the trial. It makes me wonder if he has a history of mental health issues. His actions in court beg the question – was Mr. Lorenzo competent to proceed to trial? Was Mr. Lorenzo competent to represent himself? One would assume that the court would not allow a person to proceed to trial if there was a suggestion he may not be competent to proceed. At the same time, when a person struggles with mental health or intellectual disability, it can be embarrassing or shameful to admit. That is why it is important for any attorney to make sure he or she inquires about prior mental health history with the defendant and any close friends or family who are familiar with that history. It is important to find out if the defendant is taking any medications, if they have prior diagnoses, if they have ever been Baker Acted or institutionalized, etc.
If defense counsel has reason to believe their client may not be competent to proceed, they should file a Notice of Incompetency and request he or she be evaluated by an expert qualified to determine competency. See § 916.12, Fla. Stat. (2022). If based on the experts’ observations and opinions, the Court finds that person is incompetent to proceed, speedy trial will be tolled until or unless that person is rehabilitated and found competent to proceed. Having your attorney file a Notice of Incompetency is not an easy out to handling a case. Depending on the seriousness of the charges, being found incompetent could have some unintended consequences. If a person is facing felony charges, and the court finds him or her incompetent to proceed, the court has the option of involuntarily committing that person to a state hospital if the court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant is incapable of surviving alone or with the help of responsible family or friends; there is a substantial likelihood the defendant will inflict serious bodily harm to himself or another person; and/or there are no less restrictive alternatives that will offer the defendant an opportunity to improve his condition. § 916.13, Fla. Stat. (2022).
However, if a defendant is genuinely incapable of making knowing and intelligent decisions about their case, the defendant may be able to get their case dismissed after several years. For misdemeanors, people who are incompetent to proceed can generally get their cases dismissed without prejudice after 1 year. For felonies, that time period generally ranges from 3 to 5 years, depending on the charges and the likelihood that the defendant could regain competency. Whether Mr. Lorenzo was incompetent to proceed or not, he should not have represented himself. On the bright side, at least he has some solid issues to address on appeal.
If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime or a serious felony don’t hesitate to reach out. Our Criminal Defense Attorneys have ample experience handling all types of serious crimes across the State of Florida. Call us today: 352-WIN-4YOU.