On a Tuesday afternoon earlier this month, nearly everything seemed in place as a criminal trial unfolded at Santa Cruz County Superior Court.
Prosecutor Caleb Wagner called witness after witness to the stand as they recounted the events of an alleged burglary. A 12-person jury, along with two alternate jurors, listened attentively and scribbled down questions. The judge kept the process moving and a court reporter recorded it all while typing away at a keyboard.
One thing was missing, however: a defense.
By her own choice, the woman who’d allegedly committed the crimes was not in the courtroom. And because she had chosen to represent herself, no lawyer was on hand to raise objections, cross-examine the state’s witness or present evidence on her behalf.
The table normally occupied by the defense was completely empty.
The result, a trial “in absentia,” is a relatively rare phenomenon in which judicial proceedings unfold without the defendant ever walking into the courtroom. And technically, it’s legal to conduct such a trial, so long as the defendant knowingly and voluntarily decides not to show up.
“She’s just chosen not to be present,” said Superior Court Judge Thomas Fink, addressing attorneys and court staff that afternoon.
But the trial in absentia of Shanamarie Blackshire at Santa Cruz County Superior Court was all the more unusual. After having refused to cooperate with two court-appointed lawyers, she chose to represent herself.
Blackshire’s trial forced the local justice system to contend with a difficult question: What happens when a defendant chooses to represent herself, then refuses to show up for trial?
As the evidentiary stage of Blackshire’s trial got underway that Tuesday afternoon, Judge Fink said a detention officer would remind the defendant – who is in custody – that her own criminal trial was proceeding without her.
But Blackshire did not appear in court that day, the following morning, or the next day. She was not there to present a closing argument on her behalf, or to hear the jury deliver its verdict on Jan. 12: guilty on two counts of second-degree burglary, three counts of criminal damage, and two counts of attempting to commit fraud.
A look into court documents shows Blackshire’s absence was not the only snag in the case. According to case minutes, Blackshire was never evaluated by a psychiatrist to determine whether she was competent to stand trial; court documents state that she refused to participate in an assessment with a qualified medical professional.
She also refused to sign a number of documents generated as part of her case, or leave the holding area at court to attend hearings prior to her trial.
According to a pre-trial memo from the County Attorney’s Office, Blackshire had been offered a deal to plead guilty in exchange for 10 years of probation. But now, she faces between five and 63.5 years in prison.
Blackshire’s sentencing is set for Feb. 10 at 9 a.m.
According to court documents, Blackshire was charged with unlawfully entering two private residences in the summer of 2021; she also allegedly damaged property in both homes. The homes both belonged to a gated community of private ranches in northeast Rio Rico.
And while Blackshire did not show up in the courtroom or testify at her trial, she asserted in a past interview that she owned at least one of the properties.
“I am responsible for it,” she told a detective with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office detective during a videotaped interview in July of 2021.
In the interview, Blackshire did not deny entering the property; in fact, she told the detective she’d used a handsaw and wire cutters to enter the residence. Still, maintaining her innocence, Blackshire told the detective she had federal documentation proving her ownership.
Testifying at the trial earlier this month, the detective said the documents presented by Blackshire seemed to be items she’d printed off the internet.
“As far as I know,” he said, “she never obtained that property.”
One property owner also told the jury she’d never met Blackshire prior to the break-ins. When Blackshire allegedly broke into her home in the summer of 2021, the owner said, she was out of the state. A maintenance worker in the area, however, contacted her, telling her he’d noticed a broken window on her property.
Then, on Feb. 5, 2022, the owner said, she was returning to her ranch with several friends when she saw Blackshire exiting the property.
“She was insisting that she owned the home,” the property owner testified during the January trial.
The woman called 911, according to dispatch call logs; by then, Blackshire had reportedly driven off.
Shortly after, Blackshire was arrested.
In Arizona, a statute known as Rule 11 allows court-ordered psychiatric evaluations for defendants as they move through the judicial system. Under Rule 11, any party in the trial can request the evaluation. Defendants charged with a felony must be assessed by at least two mental health experts.
If a defendant is found to be incompetent to participate in trial proceedings, the Superior Court can go in a number of directions, including competency restoration treatment or commitment to a healthcare facility.
But in Blackshire’s case, such an evaluation was never completed. According to court documents, she refused to participate in assessments with medical professionals. In one minute entry, court staff reported that during an attempt at a remote evaluation via video call, the defendant “stood up and walked away.”
According to one minute entry, a defense lawyer representing Blackshire at the time noted that he’d spoken to her mother and that he believed Blackshire was competent to stand trial.
“However, (he) would like confirmation from a doctor,” the minute entry said.
A minute entry on June 13, 2022 also states that there were several attempts to facilitate an evaluation. Blackshire, however, reportedly told Superior Court staff around that time she did not wish to participate, according to the court records.
“The Court finds that the parties have been here three times on the above matters with the defendant,” the minute entry states, later adding: “The Court further finds that she has waived her right to have a Rule 11 proceeding evaluation occur.”
Speaking at one point to attorneys in the courtroom during the January trial, Judge Fink noted that he had found Blackshire to be mentally competent to stand trial.
Under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, criminal defendants have a right to an attorney. However, defendants can also waive that right and represent themselves.
Initially, Blackshire was appointed an attorney. Court documents show that as early as February, 2022, James Miller, a lawyer with a local practice, was representing the defendant. At some point, that changed. By October, another attorney, J.T. McEwen, was listed as Blackshire’s legal counsel on court documents.
In a mid-October minute entry, McEwen informed Fink that while he’d been trying to communicate with Blackshire, “the defendant (would) not engage in communication with him.”
“Defense Counsel indicates that the defendant might not want his representation,” the minute entry said.
Speaking during the January trial, Fink noted that Blackshire had a constitutional right to represent herself. Fink asserted that forcing Blackshire to work with an attorney would be a violation of her rights; self-representation in court, he explained, is ensured under the Sixth Amendment.
“Her right to represent herself is fundamental and structural,” Fink said.
However, that creates a problem if the defendant does not show up in court: Without a defense lawyer, there is virtually no one to represent the defendant throughout the trial.
McEwen, who is now assigned as her advisory council, was on hand for the trial in case his assistance was needed. However, he sat in the gallery with the rest of the public and did not participate.
Five days after the jury delivered its guilty verdict, Blackshire appeared in the courtroom for an arraignment on additional charges of second-degree burglary and resisting arrest. The more recent charges refer to her alleged encounter with the Rio Rico homeowner on Feb. 5. Along with her Feb. 10 sentencing, she’s now set for another criminal trial on Feb. 28.
At first, during the Jan. 18 arraignment, Blackshire did not wish to enter the courtroom, according to McEwen. That posed a problem: While a trial can legally proceed without the defendant in the room, an arraignment requires the defendant’s presence.
As the judge and lawyers discussed ways to convince Blackshire to enter the courtroom, McEwen slipped into the holding cell and returned shortly after.
“She doesn’t wish to see me,” he told Fink. “And she accuses me of trying to, quote-unquote, ‘sneak her documents.’”
Finally, several detention officers entered the holding cell and returned with Blackshire, who calmly walked toward the podium.
Speaking to Blackshire, Fink explained the additional criminal charges, along with the defendant’s right to an attorney.
“Do you want an attorney to represent you in this case?” Fink asked.
“I’m going to remain silent, your honor,” Blackshire answered.
After more back-and-forth, Blackshire stated she would once again represent herself in court.
“Are you going to come to court and participate in the trial?” Fink asked.
“Answer that question,” Fink said, glancing at the detention officers. “They’re not getting you out of here until I tell them to take you out.”
“If I’m well,” Blackshire said.
“Are you in distress?” Fink asked.
“If I’m well, your honor,” she replied.