On October 9, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in two death penalty cases in which mental illness is at issue – Tibbals v. Carter (Ohio) and Ryan v. Gonzalez (Arizona). Both cases involve defendants who were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. And, in both cases, the defendant’s mental illness was an issue at trial and in the post-conviction proceedings (e.g. state appeals and federal remedies).  The issue before the Court is whether a defendant must be competent in post-conviction proceedings such as their habeas petitions.

The question is, “Does a defendant need to be able to assist his habeas attorneys?”

What is a Writ of Habeas Corpus?

A writ of habeas corpus (“you must present the person in court”), also called the “Great Writ,” is a federal procedure for inmates confined in state custody (prison) who have exhausted their state-level remedies, such as appeals, to have his/her case moved into the federal court for review. The federal Courts of Appeals in both cases ordered that the proceedings should be stayed (stopped) due to the defendants’ incompetency. The petitioners (states’ attorneys) argue that these proceedings are just “paper reviews” and the defendant doesn’t need to be able to help his/her attorney. The respondents (prisoners’ attorneys) argue that new evidence and new facts can emerge during the often long review process that the prisoner must be able to understand and assist his/her attorney.

In 1986 the Supreme Court held in Ford v. Wainwright that persons lawfully condemned to die must be mentally competent to be executed. In other words, they need to understand that they are going to be executed and why. Thus, the question of competency in death penalty cases is not new.

Professional Organizations Weigh In

Two major professional organizations each filed an Amicus Brief (“friend of the court”; don’t have a dog in this particular legal fight but have an overall interest) on the case. According to the ACLU, the issue here is the degree to which defendants participate in the post-conviction proceedings. In other words, do they need to know what’s going on with their case when a habeas review is generally regarded only as a paper review? The ACLU argues that in part because so many attorneys are involved at different stages in death penalty proceedings, the only common actor is the defendant. Therefore, s/he needs to be able to be capable of recalling events, for example.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Brief underscores the role psychosis can play in a defendant’s ability to work with his/her attorney, ranging from cognitive confusion about facts and events to paranoia about the role of the attorney. In 2005 the APA adopted a position statement, later endorsed by the American Psychological Association, the American Bar Association, the Academy of Forensic Psychiatrists, and the National Alliance for Mental Illness that court proceedings should be suspended when a defendant’s psychosis prevents him/her from assisting counsel in a fair resolution to a death sentence.

Issue: Is a death penalty habeas petition preceding just a paper review? If the defendant doesn’t really join his/her attorney in the proceedings as argued by the states, what difference does it make if s/he is mentally competent? So the first question facing the Court is whether or not prisoners need to be competent for their habeas petitions to move forward. If the Court holds that they are, at least in some cases where, for example, new facts or evidence may be at issue, then they will wrestle with the issue of for how long can a condemned prisoner be incompetent to proceed? If they agree with the states that the proceedings are just paper reviews, then the Court does not need to consider the time frame issue because the prisoner’s state of mind isn’t important – until the time for execution (which is another issue).

In their brief, the APA stated that the majority of defendants found incompetent are restored to competency within 6-9 months, a point often raised by the Justices throughout their questioning. For example:

  • If prisoners are found incompetent, should there be a limited time frame? Can they be incompetent forever, stalling the conclusion of their cases?
  • If the time is limited, what should it be? 6-9 months? A year? When does the clock start running? When they are found incompetent? When they start treatment? What if they become competent and then become incompetent again? Does the clock start again?

Some Justices seemed averse to concluding that a prisoner can remain incompetent for an indefinite period of time, dragging out the legal proceedings. Some Justices seemed to agree that habeas proceedings need the prisoner’s input and that there aren’t that many cases in which the prisoner is indefinitely incompetent. In other words, finding that prisoners can be incompetent for longer than 6-9 months, or even a year, will not open the floodgates to delaying what the states argue is the lawful concluding of their case, namely executing the condemned prisoner.

The US Supreme Court usually issues their decisions in the early summer.

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