UPDATE: Merritt was sick today. Though he was in court, he wasn’t feeling well and asked for more time. Merritt’s former attorney, David Call, was in court but he wasn’t formerly reappointed as Merritt’s attorney. Merritt reportedly said he doesn’t want to represent himself but will “if his back was against the wall.” The next date is Tuesday, February 2.
Recently, Charles Merritt refused to waive more of his speedy trial time and demanded an April trial. Merritt’s lead attorney wasn’t in court that day so the judge put the case over until last Friday. Then, in a surprise move, Merritt fired his defense team. After a closed session in chambers, Judge Michael A. Smith granted Merritt’s request to relieve his defense team led by attorney Jimmy Mettias. Today, the case is back in court to determine what’s next. Will Merritt get a new defense attorneys or revert to representing himself again?
Regardless, it seems highly unlikely that Merritt will get his wish of an April trial. Mettias wanted a July or August trial. After all, there’s a mountain of work to do when defending someone on four counts of capital murder.
We see defendants often fire attorneys, especially private, retained counsel. Suge Knight, charged with murder in Los Angeles, recently replaceed Tom Mesereau, the attorney best known for representing Michael Jackson against child molestation charges. Knight is now on his fifth defense team. Robert Blake went through a number of attorneys before settling on Gerald Schwartzbach of San Francisco to represent him against murder charges in Los Angeles. Jodi Arias, though indigent, had several teams of lawyers, including briefly herself, between her 2008 arrest and 2013 trial.
Is a revolving door of defense attorneys a delay tactic on the part of a defendant? It could be a delay tactic and probably is for many but there are serious considerations for a judge when weighing whether a defendant’s right to a fair trial is violated when the attorney-client relationship breaks down.
A defendant has a right to counsel at all times although that right can be waived. If a defendant is able to pay for his attorney, then basically he has a right to counsel of his choice. A request to replace the attorney, especially in serious cases (and you can’t get more serious than capital murder), will likely be granted. It’s a little stickier if the defendant is indigent. A defendant has a right to effective appointed counsel but can still ask for counsel to be replaced. However, it may be more difficult to convince the judge.
There are various factors a judge will look at in making the decision such as whether the defendant is incarcerated pending trial, the seriousness of the charges, and the reason the defendant wants to replace counsel. However, cases cannot drag on indefinitely; at some point, the judge will push the case to trial.
In Merritt’s case, however, he demanded a trial by April then fired his defense team which will only delay his trial by several months. So, it’s not clear what motivated this recent move.