Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court decided an important competency case. Let’s start the discussion with a quiz. Which of the following statements is true?
a. A trial may be conducted even when a capital defendant is incompetent.
b. Federal habeas proceedings may continue even when a petitioner/former capital defendant is incompetent.
c. An execution may take place even when the condemned is insane.
Process of Elimination. Most readers will quickly rule out (a), knowing that due process prohibits the trial of an incompetent defendant. See, e.g., Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348 (1996) (“We have repeatedly and consistently recognized that the criminal trial of an incompetent defendant violates due process.”). See also G.S. 15A-1001 (stating that “[n]o person may be tried . . . for a crime” while incompetent). Experienced capital litigators know that (c) isn’t right. Under Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986), “the Eighth Amendment prohibits a State from carrying out a sentence of death upon a prisoner who is insane.” By process of elimination, then, the answer must be (b).
Yesterday’s Ruling. Indeed, (b) is correct, under the Supreme Court’s ruling yesterday, which reversed two separate federal circuit courts. The case is Ryan v. Gonzalez, __ U.S. __ (2013) (Thomas, J.). Two death row inmates — one from Arizona and one from Ohio — sought federal habeas relief, then moved to stay the habeas proceedings based on the inmates’ asserted incompetence. Lower courts granted one inmate a stay pending a competency determination, and found the other incompetent and stayed proceedings in his case “with respect to any claims that required his assistance” to litigate. These rulings were based generally on the courts’ view that the statutory right to counsel provided in connection with federal habeas proceedings would be undermined if a case were allowed to proceed even though the petitioner was unable to communicate with and to assist counsel.
The Supreme Court reviewed the cases and ruled that there is no statutory right to a stay of habeas proceedings simply because a petitioner is not competent. In the Court’s view, habeas proceedings generally are based on the cold record, so counsel normally will be able to provide effective representation with little help from the petitioner. The first paragraph of the opinion summarizes: “These two cases present the question whether the incompetence of a state prisoner requires suspension of the prisoner’s federal habeas corpus proceedings. We hold that neither 18 U.S.C. §3599 nor 18 U.S.C. §4241 [the statutes relied upon by the lower courts] provides such a right and that the Courts of Appeals for the Ninth and Sixth Circuits both erred in holding that district courts must stay federal habeas proceedings when petitioners are adjudged incompetent.”
No Constitutional Right to Competence During Habeas. The Court noted in passing that there is also no constitutional right to competence during habeas proceedings, citing Murray v. Giarratano, 492 U. S. 1 (1989).
Courts Have Limited Authority to Enter Discretionary Stays. Finally, the Court considered whether a federal court has the discretion to stay habeas proceedings based on an inmate’s incompetence as a matter of the court’s power to manage its docket, even though the defendant has no right to such a stay. The Court did not completely prohibit discretionary stays, but indicated that where the proceedings concern only record-based claims, the petitioner’s input is not needed and the “claims do not warrant a stay.” Even as to claims for which the petitioner’s input would be helpful, “[a]t some point, the State must be allowed to defend its judgment of conviction,” so a district court “should take into account the likelihood that the petitioner will regain competence in the foreseeable future . . . [w]here there is no reasonable hope of competence, a stay is inappropriate.”