When Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, pled guilty to three murders in January 1998 and received a life sentence instead of the death penalty, it was widely considered a victory for his defense team.
Yet Mr. Kaczynski is now trying to reverse the deal.
In neatly lettered, handwritten court documents sent from his Florence, Colo., prison cell, he argues that he was coerced into the guilty plea by his court-appointed lawyers, who ignored his repeated statements that he preferred death over life imprisonment.
"The purpose of the present appeal is to challenge the district court's ruling that Kaczynski's guilty plea was voluntary," the former mathematics professor wrote in his recent brief to the appeals court.
The case cuts to the heart of a prickly question in American jurisprudence: Who should direct the defense in a capital murder case? And should a client's wishes take precedence over an attorney's ethical obligations - even if those wishes are, as in Kaczynski's case, for execution?
"One of the reasons that the Unabomber case is so significant is that this is terrain that really has not been mapped out," says Michael Mello, a Vermont Law School professor who has written a book about the case.
Kaczynski says he was improperly prevented from directing his own defense, and that he took the plea bargain only to avoid a defense strategy that would have portrayed him as a "grotesque lunatic." The Justice Department maintains that Kaczynski was fully aware of the consequences of his plea, and that it should stand.
While the law clearly leaves certain decisions up to the defendant - such as whether to plead guilty or go to trial, whether to testify, and whether to appeal - most power of decisionmaking lies in the hands of the defense lawyer, who is professionally obliged to protect the accused.
Some experts, however, question giving such authority to the lawyer.
In Kaczynski's case, he "wanted to avoid having his lawyers portray him to the court and to the world as a raving lunatic," says Mr. Mello. "He agreed to [the guilty plea] only to avoid suffering something that for him would have been much worse."
But many defense lawyers believe it's inappropriate - if not irresponsible - to allow a defendant to dictate strategy.
"The call for determining the strategy for a defense is ultimately the lawyer's," says Michael Katz, Colorado's federal public defender. "You've got an obligation to protect your client."
That obligation should hold firm, says Mr. Katz, even when a client, like Kaczynski, expresses an emphatic preference for execution. "A defense lawyer cannot in good conscience aid the client in this way," he says.
The debate over legal decisionmaking cannot be separated from the overarching question of mental illness, which was a looming presence in the Kaczynski case.
When lawyers represent clients with mental problems, they must assume a role of "guardianship," says Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. It would be unconscionable to let a mentally ill client direct the defense, he says, "like letting a child drive a car, or fly a plane."
In Kaczynski's case, despite being diagnosed by a prison psychiatrist as a paranoid schizophrenic, he was deemed competent to stand trial. But many say the threshold is too low, since a defendant need only be deemed able to participate and aid in the defense.
Still, Mello, who engaged in a year-long correspondence with Kaczynski, says that while Kaczynski is eccentric, it's uncertain whether the psychiatric assessment is inaccurate. Moreover, no one has challenged Kaczynski's competence to stand trial. In such cases, Mello believes a lawyer's ultimate responsibility is to respect a client's wishes.
"For me, the bottom line is that it's the client's crime, it's the client's trial, and it's the client's life," he says. "And it ought to be the client's choice."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society