Q: Does a Criminal Defendant Forfeit His Right to Counsel by Punching Said Counsel in the Face?

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A: Yes.

Or, as one report put it, “[t]he Minnesota Court of Appeals … [has ruled] that a defendant gives up his right to a court-appointed lawyer when he beats up the one he has.”

This was the ruling in Minnesota v. Lehman, in which the court described the question as one of first impression in the state. William Lehman was on trial for multiple felony assault counts, and a public defender was appointed to represent him. After the prosecution rested, Lehman himself rose to ask for a mistrial (denied) and that a different attorney be appointed to represent him (also denied). Lehman then moved for reconsideration by “wrapping his arm around [counsel’s] neck and punching him repeatedly in the face.”

Proceedings were temporarily adjourned.

When court reconvened, the jury was instructed to disregard the facts that defense counsel was no longer present, Lehman was now dressed in “jail clothes,” and that his arms and legs were shackled.

After he was convicted, Lehman claimed on appeal that the trial court had erred by allowing his attorney to withdraw and by forcing him to wear jail clothes and shackles (which, again, the jury had been told to ignore). Primary question presented: “Did the district court abuse its discretion by determining  … that appellant had forfeited his right to counsel by attacking his attorney in front of the jury?” The court cited numerous decisions from jurisdictions evidently less polite than Minnesota for the proposition that “the right to counsel can be summarily forfeited for extremely serious misconduct similar to that which occurred here,” namely beating counsel up. This seems to be done every now and then in a deliberate attempt to force a mistrial.

Maybe it will avert a future beating or two if I mention here that this strategy doesn’t work.

The appellate court also ruled that it was not an abuse of discretion to use leg restraints alone for the remainder of the trial, for the sensible reason that leg restraints “would not control appellant’s hands, which appellant had earlier used to attack his lawyer.”