Supreme Court Rules Death Penalty Cases May Proceed Even While Defendant Is Incompetent


On January 8, 2013, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Ryan v. Gonzales that federal court review in death penalty cases should go forward even when the death row prisoner is mentally incompetent to understand the proceedings and assist his lawyer.

In Gonzales, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Valencia Gonzales’s federal habeas proceedings should be stayed so the court could determine whether he was competent to communicate with his lawyer, reasoning that even though a federal habeas appeal is based on information in the record, “[m]eaningful assistance of appellate counsel may require rational communication between counsel and a habeas petitioner.”

Gonzales was combined with Tibbals v. Carter, a Sixth Circuit case in which Sean Carter, after several psychiatric evaluations and a competency determination, was found incompetent to assist his lawyer. The lower federal court stayed his proceedings until he was “competent enough to (1) understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, and (2) assist properly in his defense.”

In a decision by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts, reasoning that the “backward-looking, record-based nature of most federal habeas proceedings” means that “counsel can generally provide effective representation to a habeas petitioner regardless of the petitioner’s competence.” There is no right to competence during federal habeas review, the Court held.

The Court left to the lower federal courts disrection to decide whether to stay proceedings, but wrote that a stay is not generally warranted where the petitioner raises only record-based claims because “[c]ounsel can read the record.”

Even if it finds that “petitioner’s claim could substantially benefit from the petitioner’s assistance, the district court should take into account the likelihood that the petitioner will regain competence in the foreseeable future,” Justice Thomas wrote. “Where there is no reasonable hope of competence, a stay is inappropriate and merely frustrates the State’s attempts to defend its presumptively valid judgment.”

In light of the Gonzales decision, there is now a possibility that the State could move forward with a death penalty case even if the condemned person is so mentally incompetent that he does not understand the nature of the proceedings against him.