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Mills v. United States

April 11, 2002


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (F-1458-97) (Hon. Judith Bartnoff, Trial Judge)

Before Steadman, Reid and Glickman, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Argued December 14, 2001

A jury convicted appellant Warren E. Mills on the charge of escape, in violation of D.C. Code § 22-2601 (a)(2) (1996). *fn1 He filed a timely appeal, contending that the trial court erred by denying: (1) his pretrial request for appointment of new counsel, without conducting the proper Monroe-Farrell inquiry; *fn2 and (2) his request during the jury panel voir dire to delete part of a question relating to potential jurors' experience with persons accused of crime, or witnesses to or victims of crime, and to ask an unqualified question about such experience again during a second phase of the voir dire process. Detecting error regarding the Monroe-Farrell issue, we remand the case for appropriate findings. Should the trial court decide that a new trial is not required, however, we conclude that there was no reversible error relating to the jury voir dire because the trial judge was not constitutionally required to grant defense counsel's request that she again ask the challenged question, but in an altered form.


The record shows that in mid-February, 1997, Mr. Mills appeared before a judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia for a status hearing in a criminal case involving his alleged escape from a halfway house. During the course of the status hearing, he ran toward the public exit of the courtroom, refused to stop at the command of a Deputy United States Marshal, continued out the door and proceeded down the hall. When the deputy marshal tried to restrain him, he struggled to break loose. Two other marshals and a Metropolitan Police Department officer assisted in restraining Mr. Mills. For this attempt to flee the court, he was subsequently charged with a second escape count and convicted by a jury. He takes an appeal from the conviction based on the second escape charge.


We turn first to Mr. Mills' contention that the trial court erred by denying his request for new counsel without a proper Monroe-Farrell inquiry. The government argues that the trial judge made the proper inquiry to satisfy itself that counsel was prepared for trial.

In Moore v. United States, 675 A.2d 71 (D.C. 1996), we summarized the Monroe-Farrell inquiry requirements:

In Monroe we held that: "When a defendant makes a pretrial challenge to the effectiveness of counsel . . . on the ground that counsel, due to lack of investigation, preparation or other substantial reason, is not rendering reasonably effective assistance, the trial court has a constitutional duty to conduct an inquiry sufficient to determine the truth and scope of the defendant's allegations." 389 A.2d at 820 [(citations omitted)]. The trial court has to "`decide whether counsel has consulted with the defendant and prepared his case in a proper manner.'" Id. at 819. One of the criteria "for determining whether counsel's preparation falls within the range of competence required by defense counsel in a criminal case" is "whether counsel conferred with the defendant as often as necessary and advised him of his rights. . . ." Matthews v. United States, 459 A.2d 1063, 1065 (D.C. 1983). With respect to the nature of the inquiry required under the Monroe-Farrell doctrine, "a mere routine inquiry - - the asking of several standard questions" is insufficient. Farrell, [] 391 A.2d at 761-62. The defense counsel must be questioned "directly, on the record, about the specifics of [the defendant's] complaint" before any ruling is made. Nelson v. United States, 601 A.2d 582, 592 (D.C. 1991); see also McFadden v. United States, 614 A.2d 11, 16 (D.C. 1992). Moore, supra, 675 A.2d at 74 (textual alterations in the original).

Thus, there must be more than a perfunctory inquiry about trial counsel's preparation and his or her communication with the defendant. Nonetheless, "`the substance and scope of the inquiry [is committed] to the sound discretion of the trial court.'" Wingate v. United States, 669 A.2d 1275, 1280 (D.C. 1995) (quoting Farrell, supra, 391 A.2d at 760). This is true because "`the nature of the inquiry turns on the specific circumstances presented in each individual case . . . .'" Id. (quoting Farrell, supra note 2, 391 A.2d at 760).

We turn now to the circumstances presented in the case before us. The record shows that prior to convening a jury panel for voir dire, defense counsel informed the trial judge that: "Mr. Mills has requested that I ask the Court about the plea offer in this case." The next several minutes were spent discussing the nature of the government's plea offer, whether Mr. Mills understood the offer, and whether he wanted to accept it or go to trial. Defense counsel requested time to speak with Mr. Mills, which was granted. When the trial court resumed its consideration of Mr. Mills' case, defense counsel stated, "I have questions as to whether or not Mr. Mills understands the offer." Mr. Mills declared: "I understand what you're saying but I don't need any psychological evaluations to prove that I'm sane. Therefore, I keep having these attorneys that have a difference as to how to proceed about these matters." After further discussion, the trial judge ascertained that Mr. Mills understood that if he went to trial that day, it would be on the charge of escape. She then posed the following question to Mr. Mills: "[H]ave you discussed that with [defense counsel]? . . . I just want to know whether you discussed the case with him." The trial judge, Mr. Mills and defense counsel then engaged in dialog:

THE DEFENDANT: No, I haven't had a chance because he has been out of town. He's been out of the country and I haven't had a chance to talk to him at all. Maybe once. But that was yesterday.

THE COURT: Okay. But the two of you have talked. But you've known [defense counsel] for some time because he was your lawyer in the other case?

THE DEFENDANT: Yes. But he's been busy in a trial. He's been in trial all this time. That was the first I have had a chance to see him. Maybe once in the last, I don't know how many months.

[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Mr. Mills and I have discussed the case that's pending. The facts at issue are such that I formulated a trial strategy. I just want to be very clear with Mr. Mills that I'm prepared to try the case. I may, however, in terms of my responsibilities certainly advise a client as to whether - - as to whether or not I believe a certain resolution might be wise or not.

In response to a comment by the trial judge, defense counsel agreed that "[t]he final decision about whether to enter a plea" remained with Mr. Mills.

Without posing any other question about defense counsel's preparation for trial and his communication with Mr. Mills, the trial judge refocused on the issue of Mr. Mills' acceptance or rejection of the plea offer, and determined that he was competent to stand trial. *fn3 When the trial judge asked Mr. Mills what he wanted to do, another dialog occurred:

THE DEFENDANT: Well, actually I'm asking for a new attorney because every time I say I want to go to trial, the attorney, the lawyer says - -

THE COURT: The request is denied.

THE DEFENDANT: - - that they don't want to go to trial, they don't want to take it to trial.

THE COURT: [Defense counsel] has already said that he's prepared to go to trial today. And he has explored a variety of ...

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