Supreme Court Considers Competency in Death Penalty Cases

By: - October 10, 2012 12:00 am

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday (October 9) heard arguments from Ohio and Arizona that federal judges should not be allowed to indefinitely stay a death sentence even if there are questions about an inmate’s mental competency.

“The state has a powerful interest in the finality its conviction and sentence,” argued Alexandra Schimmer, Ohio’s solicitor general, in the Tibbals v. Carter case challenging a stay imposed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. “Ohio has been standing at the ready for 10 years to defend the judgment of its state courts in this case.”

A key issue for the court to decide is whether death row defendants have the right to assist in their defense during their federal habeas corpus claim, which is filed after they’ve been sentenced to death by a state court. Arizona and Ohio argued Tuesday that there is no specific right for a defendant to assist his or her lawyer, and federal courts should not put a death penalty case on hold indefinitely while attempts are made to restore a defendant back to mental competency.

In the first case, the defendant Sean Carter was convicted of murdering his adoptive grandmother when he was 18 and found guilty and sentenced to death in Ohio, over objections that Carter may not have been mentally competent to stand trial.  After a series of federal appeals, a three-judge panel at the Sixth Circuit found that Carter was, in fact, incompetent and at least some of Carter’s claims should be put on hold. Chiefly, the court was concerned that if Carter was mentally incompetent, he could not assist his lawyers with his claim that his lawyer in his state case was ineffective.

In a similar case also argued Tuesday, the state of Arizona said that the defendant, Ernest Gonzalez, should not be given an indefinite stay of his death sentence just because he is of questionable competence. Gonzalez was convicted of killing Darrell Wagner while burglarizing Wagner’s home in 1990. Gonzalez was sentenced to death in 1991 and after successive appeals, was granted a stay by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  Gonzalez’s case was put on hold over concerns that his history of mental illness made him unable to assist with claims he was bringing against the judge in his original trial, whom Gonzalez accused of bias.

Attorneys for Ohio and Arizona both argued that these long stays interrupted the state interest in carrying out the imposed death sentence. But they did not say that short stays should never be granted.  When Justice John Roberts asked Schimmer at what point does a stay become indefinite, she answered that “about one year would be an appropriate stay” and anything over that would be too much.

Arizona Attorney General Thomas Horne agreed. “I think that if this Court set a standard of no more than a year for the successive stays, that would give some guidance to the courts,” Horne said on behalf of the State of Arizona in Ryan v. Gonzalez. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 90 percent of incompetent defendants can be restored to competency in less than a year.

But it is the federal circuit court’s job to be the gatekeeper in these rare cases where a defendant’s competency is questionable, agued Sean Michelman of the Public Citizen Litigation Group on behalf of Carter in Ohio, and the circuit courts have wide discretion in granting stays, he said.

When these cases do occur, however, argued Arizona’s Horne, “There’s a balance that must be struck between the finality necessity under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 . . . and the need to have a competent defendant,” he said referring to a law Congress passed with the intention of speeding up death penalty cases.

When Justice Elena Kagan prompted Horne to prioritize the most important issue for the states, he agreed that the first priority was “no indefinite stays,” from the federal circuit court.  “We think it would be helpful,” Horne said, “if the Court gave some kind of standard so that there would be some guidance and uniformity,” to setting a standard for the length of a stay that a district court can impose to restore competency.

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