MOORHEAD — Criminal defendants can waive their constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel in favor of representing themselves. As anybody who has seen Hollywood courtroom dramas can attest, it makes for a great storyline — the accused tossing aside their lawyer to passionately defend themselves against injustice.
Real life is more complicated.
Defendants have the right to represent themselves so long as them waiving counsel is voluntary, knowing and intelligent. Minnesota law specifically states defendants wanting to represent themselves must submit "a voluntary and intelligent written waiver of the right to counsel." The defendant, in other words, must know and understand what they are doing.
If those standards are not met, the defendant cannot legally represent themselves.
As such, Payam Naderipour will get a new trial in a 2016 case in which he was found guilty of trying to kill his parents by setting them on fire in their north Moorhead apartment.
The Minnesota State Court of Appeals reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial in a decision released Monday, May 4, citing Naderipour's mental-health issues.
"Taken collectively, the facts present a significant question as to whether Naderipour's waiver of his right to counsel was intelligent," Judge Louise Dovre Bjorkman wrote for the appeals court. "This is particularly true when the record shows he was not taking the medications his own expert deemed necessary for Naderipour to even assist his lawyers. We are mindful of the unique challenges presented in this case. But we are not persuaded that Naderipour's waiver of his constitutional right to counsel is valid."
Naderipour, of West Fargo, was found guilty in Clay County District Court last year on two felony counts of first-degree attempted murder and sentenced to 16 years and eight months in prison. He appealed, saying the district court erred in allowing him to discharge his court-appointed attorneys in favor of representing himself. He also said the court erred in considering the report of an expert who did not testify at his omnibus hearing.
Naderipour was accused of pouring gasoline on his parents and threatening to light them on fire after an argument on Dec. 25, 2016. According to a police report, Naderipour's mother said her son made a statement during the argument to the effect: "Today is your last day and you are going to die."
Appeals court documents say two psychologists evaluated Naderipour in 2017. One diagnosed him with major depressive disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder; and alcohol-, methamphetamine- and cannabis-use disorders. The other diagnosed Naderipour with bipolar affective disorder with manic and psychotic symptoms; generalized anxiety disorder; and alcohol-, methamphetamine- and cannabis-use disorders. Both psychologists, however, found Naderipour competent to stand trial and, based on those reports, the district court followed suit.
Naderipour's attorneys wanted to establish a mental-illness defense.
Prior to his trial, Naderipour asked the court to dismiss his two attorneys because he did not trust them and he was "just sick and tired of mind games." The court granted Naderipour's request to represent himself, advising him of his duties and telling him the trial would be bifurcated to address his mental-illness defense separately from other trial issues.
In a key statement, the district court stated, "Fortunately, I don't have to make a finding that (that) waiver (is) intelligent, because, frankly, I don't know that I'd ever be able to make that finding, especially in very complicated cases like this."
As his first act in defending himself, Naderipour waived his mental-illness defense, saying he just wanted a "normal" trial, according to court documents. A jury found him guilty on both counts of attempted first-degree murder.
Naderipour appealed, saying the district court failed to ensure that waiving his right to counsel was "intelligent."
The state urged the appeals court to view the district court's statement about the intelligence of Naderipour's waiver as "inadvertent" speech, but the appeals court wrote it was "inclined to take the district court at its word, and afford Naderipour a new trial."
The appeals court also said Naderipour's competency and potential lack of criminal responsibility "due to mental illness figured prominently throughout the proceedings," saying the district court was well-aware of his mental health and his lack of treatment and medication. The appeals court said, too, it was clear by the record Naderipour didn't have the knowledge and expertise to represent himself.
"Naderipour's conduct at the hearing raised substantial concerns about his ability to represent himself," the appeals court wrote. "His statements to the district court, some absurd, show dubious reasoning and overall lack of ability to intelligently waive the right to counsel. For example, when he immediately waived his mental-illness defense, Naderipour's stated reason was that he wanted a 'regular trial, just like everybody else.' He did not apparently appreciate the significance of this waiver, which gave up arguably, his best — and possibly only — viable defense."
The appeals court clearly said Naderipour was not treated fairly by the Clay County District Court and was deserving of a new trial. These are details you won't see in dramatic Hollywood portrayals of courtroom battles.