Alabama Death Row Prisoner Carlos Kennedy Wins New Trial


The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday granted a new trial to EJI client Carlos Kennedy because the trial judge violated Mr. Kennedy’s rights to due process and a fair trial.

Carlos Kennedy was arrested in 2010 and charged with capital murder. When he first appeared in court for his arraignment, he asked for appointed counsel to be removed from the case and that he be allowed to represent himself instead. The trial court determined that Mr. Kennedy understood that representing himself would mean giving up his right to appointed counsel and granted his request. Nearly a year later, however, the trial court reversed its order and forced Mr. Kennedy to be represented by appointed counsel. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

On appeal, Mr. Kennedy argued that his constitutional right to choose whether he wanted to represent himself at trial had been violated. In Faretta v. California, the United States Supreme Court explained that, because the defendant alone bears the consequences of a conviction, he must be free to decide whether counsel is to his advantage. The Court wrote that “his choice must be honored out of ‘that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law.'”

Accordingly, the law requires that a defendant must be allowed to represent himself if he “clearly and unequivocally” invokes the right to self-representation in a timely manner, unless he engages in “obstructionist” behavior or does not understand the right to counsel that he is waiving.

The Court of Criminal Appeals observed that Mr. Kennedy “clearly and unequivocally” informed the trial court that he wished to represent himself at trial and did so in a timely manner, and he did not engage in any obstructionist behavior. The court unanimously ruled that the trial court abused its discretion when it forced Mr. Kennedy to be represented by appointed counsel.

The appellate court noted that, in Faretta, the Supreme Court explained that “[t]o force a lawyer on a defendant can only lead him to believe that the law contrives against him.” Here, the court wrote, “because Kennedy had an inherent distrust of court appointed attorneys, the circuit court’s decision to force a lawyer on him put Kennedy in a position of believing that ‘the law contrives against him.'”

The court reversed Mr. Kennedy’s conviction and death sentence and remanded for a new trial.