The Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed a 2010 murder conviction because a Muscogee County judge failed to honor the suspect's right to represent himself during the bench trial, the court said.
Ulysses Wiggins was sentenced to life in prison for shooting and killing 24-year-old Catherine Walker on Dec. 16, 2008. Walker was described in previous reports as an innocent bystander outside a Talbotton Road apartment complex when Wiggins became enraged that his girlfriend Valorice Caples was leaving him because of his abusive behavior.
After a brief altercation with Caples and her friend Carolyn Senior, Wiggins went back to his home a few blocks away and retrieved a gun, according to court records. Police said Wiggins began chasing the teenagers who helped break up the previous fight.
While Caples and Senior again were able to escape from Wiggins, he continued to run around the apartment complex, where he eventually encountered Walker, whom he shot and killed as she stood outside, court records show.
Wiggins was arrested as he tried to flee the scene, but the weapon was never recovered. He denied shooting Walker and claims she was shot by someone else.
The Georgia Supreme Court said Tuesday Wiggins' attorney Pete Quezada suffered a heart attack while representing him and the homicide suspect believed his attorney blamed him for causing the attack.
Three months before trial, Wiggins wrote a letter to the court, stating: "What I am asking for is a chance to come before the court. I am more than ready to defend myself. … I cannot allow Mr Quezada to represent me."
But no further action was taken, and Quezada remained his attorney.
After a one-day bench trial, Superior Court Chief Judge John Allen, who is now retired, found him guilty of all charges.
Tuesday's Georgia Supreme Court decision said the higher court agreed there was sufficient evidence to find Wiggins guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but "the trial court erred by failing to hold a hearing to determine whether appellant's request to proceed pro se was knowingly and intelligently made …."
Both the U.S. and Georgia constitutions guarantee a criminal defendant the right to an attorney and the right to self-representation, the court stated.
“Appellant’s request to proceed pro se was virtually ignored by both the trial court and counsel prior to trial, and relying only on appellant’s silence at the start of trial, the trial court ‘assumed’ appellant had waived his previously asserted right,” the opinion stated. Because there was no evidence that Wiggins wavered in his desire to proceed pro se, “we find that appellant’s mere silence was insufficient to establish a knowing and intelligent waiver of his already invoked right to self-representation.”