(CN) - Prisoners cannot use mental incompetency as a reason to suspend their bids for federal habeas relief, the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The high court looked at the issue by consolidating the cases of Sean Carter, who won relief from the 6th Circuit, and Ernest Valencia Gonzales, whose case went before the 9th Circuit.
Sean Carter faces the death penalty in Ohio for the murder and anal 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."
Gonzales meanwhile had been convicted and sentenced in 1991 for first-degree murder after stabbing an Arizona couple in front of their 7-year-old son. When Gonzales exhausted his options for relief in state court, he 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 reversed.
Each federal appeals court cited a different federal law in granting stays to Carter and Gonzales, but neither maneuver passed muster Tuesday with the high court.
"Both the Ninth and Sixth Circuits have concluded that death row inmates pursuing federal habeas are entitled to a suspension of proceedings when found incompetent," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. "The Ninth Circuit located this right in §3599, while the Sixth Circuit located it in §4241. Neither section provides such a right.
"Section 3599(a)(2) guarantees federal habeas petitioners on death row the right to federally funded counsel. ... But §3599 does not direct district courts to stay proceedings when habeas petitioners are found incompetent."
The court similarly shot down the 9th Circuit's references to the precedent it set in Rohan v. Woodford and Nash v. Ryan.
"We are not persuaded by the Ninth Circuit's assertion that a habeas petitioner's mental incompetency could 'eviscerate the statutory right to counsel' in federal habeas proceedings," Thomas wrote. "Given the backward-looking, record-based nature of most federal habeas proceedings, counsel can generally provide effective representation to a habeas petitioner regardless of the petitioner's competence. Indeed, where a claim is 'adjudicated on the merits in state court proceedings,' counsel should, in most circumstances, be able to identify whether the 'adjudication ... resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,' without any evidence outside the record. Attorneys are quite capable of reviewing the state-court record, identifying legal errors, and marshaling relevant arguments, even without their clients' assistance.
The court also took a dim view of the six-year delay that preceded Gonzales' habeas petition.
"This was certainly ample time for his attorney to research and present the claims," Thomas wrote.
Section 4241, with emphasis on the 1966 decision Rees v. Peyton, or Rees I, likewise does not support the stay granted to Carter by the 6th Circuit, the high court found.
"Rees I did not recognize a statutory right to competence in federal habeas proceedings," Thomas wrote. "Moreover, §4241 does not even apply to such proceedings. ... By its own terms, §4241 applies only to trial proceedings prior to sentencing and 'at any time after the commencement of probation or supervised release.' Federal habeas proceedings, however, commence after sentencing, and federal habeas petitioners, by definition, are incarcerated, not on probation."
The decision also notes that this section applies to federal defendants, while Carter is a state prisoner.
After reversing the 9th Circuit's decision, the high court vacated the 6th Circuit's finding and remanded the case for further proceedings.
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