Court Appointed Attorney Request In Case Involving the Death Penalty

In People v. Bigelow (1984), the trial court denied the defendant's request for advisory counsel, holding that California law did not permit advisory counsel. (Bigelow, supra, 37 Cal. 3d at pp. 740, 742.) After representing himself in both the guilt and penalty phases of the trial, the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death. The California Supreme Court reversed his conviction, holding the trial court did have the discretion to appoint advisory counsel, and further, that under the circumstances of the case, it would have been an abuse of discretion to refuse the request for advisory counsel. (Id. at p. 743.) In so holding, the court stressed that the case involved the death penalty, which "affects the standard by which the court should evaluate [the defendant's] request" because " 'death is a different kind of punishment from any other, both in terms of severity and finality.' " (Id. at 743, fn. 7, quoting Keenan v. Superior Court (1982) 31 Cal. 3d 424, 430 [180 Cal. Rptr. 489, 640 P.2d 108].) The court also noted that capital cases raise complex legal and factual issues beyond those raised in an ordinary trial. In particular, the case before it arose under the 1978 death penalty initiative, "an enactment rife with constructional and constitutional difficulties, which had not yet been judicially interpreted." (Bigelow, supra, 37 Cal. 3d at p. 743.) The court concluded that given the defendant's limited education, foreign nationality and unfamiliarity with California law, he was "not competent to defend a capital case." (Id. at pp. 743-744.)