By Globe Staff
People have a fundamental right to have a lawyer when they go to criminal court, but they can forfeit that right if they threaten or attack their court-appointed counsel, the state's highest court has ruled.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled Friday in the case of a man who threatened in a blood-smeared letter to "physicially assault, spit, kick, head butt, etc." his lawyer. The defendant, Mark Means, was ordered to represent himself at his September 2005 Plymouth Superior Court trial on charges of assault and being a habitual criminal, after a judge learned of the threats.
The SJC said that a defendant has a fundamental right to have a lawyer and that the right is "essential to individual liberty and security." But it also said the right, in certain cases, can be forfeited.
"Forfeiture may be an appropriate response to the defendant's threats of violence or acts of violence against defense counsel or others," the court said in an eight-page ruling written by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall.
"Threats of violence by a defendant (or others) are antithetical to the work of justice, and judges can and must take decisive measures to control any such threats," the ruling said.
But if a defendant faces the possible loss of a lawyer, a judge should hold a hearing, the court said, where the defendant must be given "a full and fair opportunity … to offer evidence as to the totality of circumstances."
In Means's case, the court found, the hearing he received was "perfunctory" and "fell well short of what was adequate." The court overturned Means's convictions of assault and battery on a correction officer and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and ordered that he be retried.
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