WASHINGTON, March 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said
on Monday it would decide whether a federal law on the
appointment of attorneys requires that death row inmates have
their legal proceedings put on hold if they are mentally
incompetent to assist their lawyers.
The justices agreed to hear a pair of cases from Arizona and
Ohio and decide the reach of a law that provides that a poor
death row inmate pursuing a federal appeal after conviction be
entitled to the appointment of attorneys.
The Obama administration took the position in one of the
cases that federal courts have the inherent authority to put
such proceedings on hold if the inmate was mentally incompetent.
Administration lawyers said the law at issue neither
categorically requires nor rules out a stay of such proceedings.
It said the law provided for the appointment of an attorney but
does not guarantee a right of mental competence to assist the
counsel in post-conviction appeals.
The case from Arizona involved Ernest Gonzales, who in 1991
was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In 1999, he
filed a federal habeas appeal and an attorney from the public
defender's office was appointed to represent him under the
His attorneys said in 2006 that he had become mentally
incompetent and was unable to assist them in the case. A U.S.
court of appeals then put the proceedings on holding pending a
determination of his mental competency.
The case from Ohio involved a similar stay of
post-conviction proceedings, this time involving Sean Carter,
who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of
his adoptive grandmother.
An appeals court put on hold his federal habeas proceedings
on the grounds he suffered from mental illnesses, was
incompetent and was unable to communicate information to current
attorneys who have been claiming ineffective assistance of
counsel by his trial lawyer.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the two cases
during the term that begins in October with a decision likely
early next year.
The Supreme Court cases are Charles L. Ryan v. Ernest
Valencia Gonzales, No. 10-930, and Terry Tibbals v. Sean Carter,
For Ryan: John Todd, Arizona Assistant Attorney General.
For Gonzales: Leticia Marquez of the Office of the Federal
Public Defender for the District of Arizona.
For Tibbals: Alexandra Schimmer, Ohio Solicitor General.
For Carter: Linda Prucha, Supervisor of the Death Penalty
Division, Ohio Public Defenders Office.
(Reporting By James Vicini)
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