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United States v. Wright

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

May 7, 2019

United States of America, Appellee
Tyrone Wright, Appellant

          Argued October 1, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:16-cr-00073-1)

          Andrew M. Stewart, appointed by the court, argued the cause and filed the brief for appellant.

          Anwar L. Graves, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief were Jessie K. Liu, U.S. Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman, Suzanne Grealy Curt, and Stephen J. Gripkey, Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

          Before: Griffith and Pillard, Circuit Judges, and Sentelle, Senior Circuit Judge.



         Displeased with his first two court-appointed attorneys, appellant Tyrone Wright chose to proceed pro se. He made this choice in the face of repeated warnings by the trial judge about the hazards of representing himself in a criminal matter. On appeal, Wright argues that the court erred in denying his request for a third attorney and allowing him to represent himself. We find no error and affirm his jury conviction.


         Wright was indicted for three counts of bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a). The court appointed David Bos of the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Columbia to represent him. During Bos's first appearance, the court granted a motion by the defense for a 45-day continuance to review discovery and obtain additional information. Bos told the court that Wright, who was not present at the hearing, agreed to the continuance, but when Wright appeared at the next status hearing, he claimed that Bos had not "consulted" him, and that he had not approved this delay. J.A. 22, 25. Declaring to the court that he was "not comfortable with" Bos, Wright asked for either "a new attorney" or permission to proceed pro se. J.A. 22-25.

         The court cautioned Wright, "[I]t is a terribly bad idea to go pro se," J.A. 40, and explained that Wright would have more control over trial strategy if he hired paid counsel. When his attempts to hire private counsel failed, the court appointed Peter Cooper as a temporary replacement for Bos to allow Wright time to think about whether he wanted Cooper to represent him going forward. Wright was initially resistant to the idea but eventually agreed that Cooper could represent him and consented to a six-week delay of the impending trial date to allow time to prepare.

         As they worked together, Cooper grew concerned that Wright might not be competent to stand trial. With Wright's permission, Cooper asked the court to order a competency screening. The court agreed, and Wright was found competent. Still skeptical, and once again with Wright's consent, Cooper asked the court to order a second, more exhaustive examination. The court did so, and the Bureau of Prisons conducted the examination at the Federal Medical Center in Kentucky. The process took about a month longer than the parties and the court expected but confirmed Wright's competence once again. Based on the two screenings, the district court found Wright competent to stand trial.

         This added delay was the final straw for Wright, and over the course of the next month he raised various complaints about Cooper. He questioned Cooper's defense strategy and tactical decisions, and even accused him of working with the prosecution. Wright claimed that Cooper had failed to share critical evidence with him and had agreed to an overly-restrictive protective order that barred him from possessing certain materials while in jail. He accused Cooper of requesting the first competency screening without consulting him, and only asking for the second one because Wright had refused to enter a plea agreement that Cooper had urged him to accept.

         Wright told the court that he was uncomfortable with Cooper and did not trust him. He claimed that Cooper had yelled and cursed at him and otherwise failed to adequately communicate with him. According to Wright, Cooper had offended him by asking if he was dissatisfied with his court-appointed lawyers because they were of a different race. Cooper acknowledged that they were having trouble working together but laid the blame at Wright's feet. As Cooper put it, "I will do whatever the [c]ourt asks me to do, but at this time I see myself as not being in a position to prepare a competent defense for Mr. Wright" because of his "refusal to work with me." Suppl. App. 12-13.

         The district court agreed and explained that Wright's complaints about Cooper were either unfounded or the result of his refusal to cooperate with Cooper. Most of Wright's complaints involved disagreements over strategy, and the court made clear to Wright that he was not "entitled to make . . . every single trial strategy decision." J.A. 201. The protective order about which Wright complained was "routine" and permissible, J.A. 197, and the record clearly established that Wright had agreed to both competency screenings. The court credited Cooper's explanation that he had tried to share evidence with Wright, but Wright had cut off those meetings. The court found baseless Wright's suggestion that Cooper was somehow working with the prosecution or had any conflict of interest. As to Cooper's question about racial bias, ...

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