Supreme Court to rule on competence in capital cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] granted certiorari [order list, PDF] Monday in two capital cases. In Ryan v. Gonzales [docket; cert. petition, PDF], the court will determine whether 18 USC § 3599(a)(2) [text], which provides that an indigent capital state inmate pursuing federal habeas relief "shall be entitled to the appointment of one or more attorneys," impliedly entitles a death row inmate to stay the federal habeas proceedings he initiated if he is not competent to assist counsel. Respondent Ernest Valencia Gonzales's counsel initiated federal habeas proceedings and filed an exhaustive petition seeking relief, but several years later asserted that Gonzales was incompetent to communicate rationally and the proceedings should be indefinitely stayed pending possible restoration of competency. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed [opinion, PDF], holding that "although Gonzales's exhausted claims are record-based or legal in nature, he is entitled to a stay pending a competency determination."

In a similar case, Tibbals v. Carter [docket], the court will also decide on the "right to competence" in capital habeas cases. The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit found [opinion, PDF] that the district court did not abuse its discretion in conducting a competency hearing and finding Sean Carter incompetent. However, the Sixth Circuit did find that the district court abused its discretion in dismissing Carter's petition and prospectively tolling the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act statute of limitations indefinitely.

 

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