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Constitution does not assure ‘comfort’ with counsel

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard L. Willliams tried to do right by the defendant.

Facing a firearm charge, defendant James Eugene Venable appeared in Richmond federal court to ask the judge to give him a new public defender, someone different from the one appointed a few weeks earlier. Venable claimed that “months have gone by” without counsel doing what he wanted, that he and the PD did not “see eye to eye” and he did not “feel comfortable” with counsel, although it was “nothing personal.”

Williams denied Venable’s motion for new counsel, advising the defendant he did not have a right to counsel “he feels comfortable with,” or to pick and choose his appointed counsel.

Williams ordered the defendant to proceed pro se, and encouraged him to enter into a previously negotiated plea agreement.

That move was premature, the 4th Circuit said. The trial court failed to warn Venable about the dangers of self-representation or determine there was a knowing or voluntary waiver, said Judge Roger Gregory in the court’s April 14 unpublished opinion remanding the case for a new trial.
By Deborah Elkins

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