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Defendant has counsel at trial but appellate court says trial judge's evidentiary ruling denied him his right to counsel

Sometimes the legal result in a case just seems to make no sense. Here is one of those instances. A defendant was on trial. Another defendant had pled guilty in connection with the same crime. The defendant who was on trial wanted the jury to be informed that the other defendant had pled guilty. Apparently, he thought this would make the jury think he was not guilty. The defendant's court-appointed lawyer said that he did not want the jury to be told that the other defendant had pled guilty. The judge ruled in favor of the defendant himself and overruled his attorney.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed. Their reasoning was that when the judge favored the defendant's own personal point of view as to whether the guilty plea should be evidenced before the jury and overruled the defendant's lawyer, he had denied the defendant the right to counsel. In reasoning that seems strange, the Appellate Division said that there is no hybrid representation. There can be only one lawyer. The defendant had a lawyer and that lawyer was the only one who could decide whether something got into evidence or not.

This may seem to be a strange result but in an odd way it makes sense. If the defendant was unhappy with his lawyer, he could have told the judge that he was not happy and wanted another lawyer. He could have also told the jury that he would like his lawyer to be removed from the case and that he wanted to defend himself. That is how the judge should have handled the situation. But by overruling the lawyer and agreeing with the effectively unrepresented defendant, the judge had really denied him the assistance of counsel.

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