In United States v. Ly, No. 09-12515, 2011 WL 2848477, at *1 (11th Cir. July 20, 2011), the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed a pro se defendant's conviction when it was apparent that the defendant misunderstood his right to give a narrative testimony without having to be cross-examined by the prosecution.
Defendant Hung Thien Ly was a medical practitioner who was indicted on 129 counts of writing prescriptions for certain medications "outside the usual course of professional practice and without legitimate medical purpose" under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) an 21 C.F.R. § 1306.04. Ly claimed that he was indigent and therefore requested court-appointed counsel. The Government opposed the motion, arguing that Ly moved all his assets into his wife's name and was therefore not indigent. The magistrate judge accordingly denied Ly's request. Ly subsequently pled not guilty and, after the magistrate warned Ly of the dangers that came with representing himself at trial, decided that he would still defend his charges pro se.
Ly had no prior legal training or experience in a courtroom. After the prosecution presented their arguments, the court explained that Ly could testify as to what kind of practice he had and how he handled his patients. Ly was unaware that he could testify in narrative form and therefore did not need to be questioned by opposing counsel. After Ly revealed his confusion to the court, the judge did nothing to correct Ly's misunderstanding. Ly therefore chose not to testify on his own behalf and was subsequently found guilty on all 129 counts of health care fraud. Ly then appealed his case, arguing that the district court denied him his right to testify by failing to correct his misunderstanding regarding the availability of narrative testimony.
On appeal, the Government argued that a district court has no duty to act as a pro se defendant's lawyer and therefore had no duty to correct Ly's misunderstanding. The 11th Circuit held, however, that a court has an obligation to protect pro se defendants from inadvertent forfeiture of the right to testify if the court has already engaged in a conversation with the defendant regarding that right. Since Ly had no legal training or courtroom experience, it was reasonable for Ly to believe that direct testimony only allows for a question-and-answer dialogue between an attorney and a witness. Once it was apparent that Ly misunderstood this right, the district court should have corrected Ly. The 11th Circuit also stressed that their holding only applies in situations like Ly's where a court has already discussed with the defendant their right to testify and it is apparent that this right is misunderstood by the defendant.