An Orange County man convicted in 2016 of masterminding a “diabolical” plot to kidnap and assassinate a federal judge with a wood chipper will receive a new trial because his constitutional rights were violated during the trial.
That’s the ruling this week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which determined that federal judge Cormac J. Carney failed to follow proper procedures in determining John Walthall didn’t suffer a major mental illness while also saying he wasn’t competent to represent himself.
Because Carney didn’t conduct a special hearing with a colloquy between himself and the defendant on the topic, Walthall’s case must be reversed, according to the three-judge panel of Kim Wardlaw, Johnnie B. Rawlinson and Andrew D. Hurwitz.
The panel rejected Carney’s stance that Walthall lacked the legal knowledge to act as his own attorney, noting that his constitutional right to control his own defense would apply even if the defendant had been “abysmally ignorant.”
“The district court’s erroneous denial of Walthall’s right to represent himself was ‘structural error and therefore requires reversal’ and a new trial,” the opinion declares.
Having been the lone journalist to cover the entire trial, I know Carney repeatedly displayed generous patience with the defendant, who was prone to bizarrely glare at people inside the courtroom and perform loud, rambling outbursts—some involving the Illuminati’s alleged role in his plight.
He also repeatedly attacked the work of his own taxpayer-supplied defense lawyer during the trial.
According to the government, Walthall hatched a 2014 plan in prison to have mercenaries kidnap and kill U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford, two assistant U.S. attorneys and several FBI agents, all of whom were involved in his earlier conviction for swindling about $2 million from an elderly couple.
During the trial, the defendant insisted the FBI’s Orange County field office concocted both cases against him.
Carney had declared the assassination plots “diabolical” before sentencing Walthall to a term of 20 years, a punishment he ordered to run consecutive to the prior wire fraud stint of 14 years.
The new trial has not yet been scheduled.
Walthall, 63, is currently housed in a federal prison in Oregon.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.