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State v. Sanders

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, First Division

February 23, 2016

STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent,
v.
JAMES M. SANDERS, Appellant

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis. Hon. Margaret M. Neill.

         FOR APPELLANT: Susan W. McGraugh, St. Louis University Legal Clinic, St. Louis, MO.

         FOR RESPONDENT: Chris Koster, Attorney General, Daniel N. McPherson, Asst. Attorney General, Jefferson City, MO.

          OPINION

         ROBERT G. DOWD, JR., JUDGE

         James M. Sanders appeals from the judgment entered on his conviction for robbery in the second degree after a jury trial. We affirm.

         Sanders was charged with robbery in the first degree for a 2012 bank robbery. He was determined competent to stand trial after a psychiatric examination. Sanders chose to represent himself, and standby counsel was appointed. According to the evidence at trial--the sufficiency of which is not challenged on appeal--Sanders walked into Lindell Bank and handed the teller a note. The note stated that Sanders had a gun and directed the teller to hand over all the money. The teller handed Sanders the money, then Sanders took the note back and left the bank. During this short interaction, Sanders had his hands where the teller could not see them. Based on the note, the teller assumed Sanders had a weapon. Sanders testified at trial and admitted that he gave the teller a note and took the money, but claimed he could not remember what the note said and denied that he intended to hurt anyone or take the money forcibly. The jury found Sanders guilty of the lesser-included offense of robbery in the second degree, and he was sentenced as a prior and persistent offender to 10 years imprisonment.

         On appeal, Sanders claims two errors relating to statements the prosecutor made during voir dire: that the prosecutor's reference to Sanders being in a subversive anti-government organization was an impermissible reference to uncharged bad acts and that the prosecutor's repeated comments about Sanders's decision to proceed pro se violated his Sixth Amendment right to represent himself. Neither claim has merit.

         Shortly after voir dire began, the prosecutor raised the issue of Sanders's pro se status:

I think at this point it would make sense to talk about the fact that the defendant is sitting here unrepresented or without counsel at this point.
At this point, the defendant has chosen to proceed without an attorney. He has chosen to proceed on his own behalf. And because of that, he is going to be held to the same standards that a lawyer would be held. He's going to be held to the same rules. He's going to be held to the same--to be expected to have the same knowledge as a lawyer.
Now there are many who I am sure are sitting there thinking, that is a very bad idea. That is a terrible idea. Should not proceed to trial without a lawyer. Absolutely. And that is a fair statement. However, it is his absolute right to proceed without counsel. If he wanted counsel and he hired counsel, he could have it. If he wanted counsel and he could not afford counsel, counsel would be appointed for him. He could have a lawyer. He would have a lawyer if he wanted one.

         The prosecutor then pointed out that the court had appointed standby counsel who would be there throughout the trial in case Sanders changed his mind. Then he again pointed out Sanders's " absolute right" to represent himself, but clarified:

That does not affect my job as a prosecutor to bring forth evidence. That does not affect your job as jurors to evaluate the evidence fairly and make a decision based on what you hear and see in court.

         The prosecutor then asked if anyone would have a hard time finding someone guilty who had decided to represent himself. One person responded that it was odd, and the prosecutor agreed, but pointed out that the decision must be respected nonetheless. The prosecutor also explained that the State's burden of proof was the same regardless of whether Sanders had an attorney or not. Another person said the situation seemed unfair ...


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