(CN) - The Supreme Court on Monday took up two cases that ask whether a death-row inmate can delay habeas proceedings if he is no longer competent to assist in his defense.
Sean Carter faces the death penalty in Ohio for the murder and rape of his adoptive grandmother. Veader Prince was found murdered in her basement in 1997, shortly after Carter had been released from Geauga County Jail for theft.
When police picked him up, Carter confessed to breaking into Prince's house through her window and stabbing her repeatedly after she refused to let him stay there for a week.
Carter said he did not remember all the details of the assault, claiming it was blur until he was washing his hands and the knife in the kitchen. He took about $150 from Prince's purse, changed his clothes and left.
After Carter exhausted his options for relief in state court, he was housed in a facility for prisoners with mental illnesses. Carter refused to meet with his attorneys, leading them to file Carter's habeas petition and seek a pre-petition competency hearing.
Experts testified at the hearing that Carter suffered from schizophrenia, personality disorder and hallucinations. Two years later, a defense expert testified that Carter had become progressively worse, despite treatment.
A Toledo federal judge dismissed the habeas petition and prospectively tolled the statute of limitations under Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) until Carter became competent to proceed.
The 6th Circuit amended the finding in a divided May 2011 ruling.
Dismissing Carter's petition and equitably tolling the AEDPA statute of limitations prospectively was an inappropriate disposition," according to the majority opinion authored by Judge Boyce Martin Jr. "Rather, with respect to Carter's ineffective assistance claims, the habeas proceedings should be stayed until Carter is competent."
In a stinging dissent, Judge John Rogers said that "the incompetency of witnesses does not stop civil proceedings, and it is anomalous that the incompetency of a plaintiff should stop proceedings entirely because the party cannot act as a witness."
"Requiring competency on the part of capital habeas petitioners is not compelled by the right to competency at trial, the right to competency in waiving further habeas proceedings, or the right to be competent at the time of execution," he added. "The new 'right' is not provided by either the Constitution or any statute. It is instead an anomalous monkey wrench thrown into the capital-litigation process."
In a similar turn the previous year, the 9th Circuit stayed habeas proceedings for Ernest Valencia Gonzales.
After Gonzales was convicted and sentenced in 1991 for first-degree murder, he exhausted his options for relief in state court and sought a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court.
Facing a briefing deadline in 2006, Gonzales' lawyers moved to stay the hearing pending a competency hearing. They said Gonzales' mental health was deteriorating rapidly, causing him he to lose the ability to rationally communicate, but his participation was critical to the case.
Though his supervising psychologist said Gonzales could be faking his symptoms, he concluded that the inmate suffered from a "genuine psychotic disorder" and his inability to communicate rationally would interfere with legal proceedings.
After a federal judge refused to grant the stay, the 9th Circuit said in September 2010 that its recent decision in Nash v. Ryan required reversal.
"In Nash we held that the prosecution of a habeas appeal that is record-based and resolvable as a matter of law can benefit from communication between client and counsel," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the court. "Because we conclude that Nash controls this case, we hold that, although Gonzales's exhausted claims are record-based or legal in nature, he is entitled to a stay pending a competency determination."
As is its custom, the Supreme Court did not comment on its decision to take up either case.
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