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Supreme Court to Decide on Competency Delays in Death-Row Habeas Cases

Posted Mar 19, 2012 11:24 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether death-row inmates with mental health problems are entitled to delays in their habeas proceedings.

The court granted cert today in two cases raising the issue, the Associated Press reports. SCOTUSblog links to the cert petition (PDF) filed by Arizona in one of the cases, Ryan v. Gonzales. The inmate, Ernest Valencia Gonzales, was sentenced to death for a 1990 murder in Phoenix. Gonzales’ lawyer, who was appointed under a federal law providing counsel for indigent capital inmates, had claimed his client was unable to assist him and thus entitled to a delay.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the case to determine competency. According to the cert petition, “The 9th Circuit has essentially rewritten the [appointment of counsel] statute to impliedly create two additional rights: to be competent to assist counsel during a capital federal habeas proceeding and to obtain a stay of the proceedings if the petitioner was incompetent.”

The second case, Tibbals v. Carter, involves Ohio death-row inmate Sean Carter, who was sentenced to death for raping and killing his adoptive grandmother in 1997, AP says. According to an opinion (PDF) by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, experts agreed that Carter suffered from schizophrenia, personality disorder and hallucinations. The court based its decision partly on a different federal law allowing judges to order competency hearings for defendants before a trial, SCOTUSblog reports.

The Volokh Conspiracy noted “a forceful dissent” by Judge John Rogers in the 2011 ruling. “Today the court allows habeas petitioners to prevent states from enforcing their judgments, potentially forever, on the grounds of a nonexistent right to competency in habeas proceedings,” he wrote.

Updated on March 20 to include SCOTUSblog coverage.

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