April 15, 2012

SCOTUS to tackle capital habeas competency right

At a criminal trial, a defendant who lacks rational understanding cannot be forced to proceed. Likewise, a person who is sentenced to death cannot be executed unless he is sane enough to grasp why he is being punished.(1)

But what happens if a prisoner loses his mind between the bookends of trial and execution, as he languishes on Death Row while his appeals wind slowly through the appellate courts? Does a prisoner have a right to be competent during the course of habeas proceedings, or can his appeals proceed without him?

After officials in 17 states urged the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify this issue, the Court signaled it would do so by agreeing to review two cases, one from Arizona and the other from Ohio.

Lawyers will be battling over various legal precedents, from English Common Law to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from 2003 to an obscure Supreme Court ruling from 1966.

In the case of Ernest Valencia Gonzales, Arizona attorneys contend that the Ninth Circuit “created a competency right out of thin air,” and that prisoners do not have a right to competency during federal appeals.

Gonzales was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1991. His appeal was stayed 15 years later, after his attorneys said he had lost the ability to rationally communicate and to assist them, due to a progressive deterioration in his mental health.

In halting Gonzales’s case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles federal appeals in the nine western states, relied upon its earlier ruling in the case of Rohan ex rel. Gates v. Woodford (334 F.3d 803). In that 2003 decision, the court ruled that a capital habeas petitioner has a right to competency if he is pursuing “claims that could potentially benefit from his ability to communicate rationally.” That case effectively halted the execution of Oscar Gates of California, who was condemned to die for a 1979 murder.

The lawyers for the state of Arizona say the Rohan ruling plays into the hands of convicted prisoners, who “have an incentive to adopt delaying tactics to avoid execution,” thus circumventing states’ interests in carrying out their death sentences.

Gonzales's attorneys call this claim "hysterical," stating that the right to competency under Rohan is narrow in scope and has only been granted in a handful of cases. They say the right to be competent from the time of arrest all the way through to execution is well established:
An incompetent condemned prisoner’s inability to assist counsel was recognized under English Common Law…. If the condemned prisoner became of unsound mind at any point before execution, the proceedings were to be stayed. The rationale behind this rule was that the condemned prisoner’s mental disorder might prevent him from sharing with his lawyer a fact, known only to him, that could result in his life being spared. This rationale is just as relevant today.
The level of competence required during federal habeas proceedings falls "somewhere between the right to be competent to stand trial and the right to be competent to be executed," they said in their reply brief.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined a request to review the Rohan ruling, and up until now -- with one small exception -- has studiously avoided stepping in to clarify the competency rights of prisoners during federal appeals.

That exception, an obscure case back in 1966, is at the heart of the state of Ohio’s appeal in the case of Sean Carter, who is awaiting execution for the 1997 rape and murder of his adoptive grandmother.

The case, Rees v. Peyton, involved Melvin Davis Rees, Jr., a Virginia jazz musician convicted in the 1959 massacre of a family of four. When he announced that he wanted to stop all further appeals, his lawyers said they doubted his mental competency to make that decision. A psychiatrist retained by Rees's attorneys opined that Rees was mentally incompetent, while psychiatrists selected by the state expressed doubts. In a short ruling, the Supreme Court directed the federal district court to, as a first step, "make a judicial determination as to Rees' mental competence and render a report on the matter to us." The question, the high court said, was "whether [Rees] has capacity to appreciate his position and make a rational choice with respect to continuing or abandoning further litigation or on the other hand whether he is suffering from a mental disease, disorder, or defect which may substantially affect his capacity in the premises."

Accordingly, the lower court held a hearing and determined that Rees was indeed incompetent to abandon his appeals. In a one-line order the following year, the Supreme Court put the matter on hold, and never returned to it. Rees died in prison three decades later, in 1995.

"To this day, the Rees case is shrouded in mystery," says the government’s brief in the Carter case, with different circuit courts hold starkly different views of its breadth. To the Sixth Circuit, it stands for the proposition that prisoners have a right to be competent during their appeals. Other circuits, according to the brief, have interpreted it more narrowly, to guarantee a competency right only to prisoners who have decided to abandon further appeals.

Lawyers for the state of Ohio raise similar concerns to those in Arizona, saying the stay of Carter's case, if upheld, "will improperly bring Ohio’s capital litigation to a halt. Under the Sixth Circuit's extraordinarily loose standards, any prisoner can make a minimal showing of incompetence, demand a hearing, and secure an indefinite stay of his habeas proceedings." The Sixth Circuit handles appeals from Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

The cases are Ryan v. Gonzales and Tibbals v. Carter. All of the briefs are available online, by clicking on these case links.The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the two cases during the term that begins in October, with a decision likely early next year. So far, I haven't heard much speculation on which way the wind is blowing.

Footnote 1: This is the minimalist "Ford standard" set out by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1986 opinion in Ford v. Wainwright.

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