SUPREME COURT: Justices to Consider Whether Death Penalty Appeals Can Continue When Defendant Is Incompetent

On October 9, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider cases from Arizona and Ohio questioning whether death penalty appeals can continue if the defendant is mentally incompetent. Under the Court’s prior rulings in Ford v. Wainwright (1986) and in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), capital defendants cannot be executed if they are incompetent or intellectually disabled (mentally retarded). In the upcoming cases, Ryan v. Gonzalez and Tibbals v. Carter, the Court will determine whether mentally incompetent inmates are entitled to a stay of federal habeas proceedings because they cannot assist their counsel. The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Ninth and Sixth Circuits, respectively, held that the defendants’ competency was necessary, thus staying the proceedings indefinitely. The states that asked the Court to review this question asserted that the appeals should go forward, since no new information will be considered. The American Psychiatric Association submitted an amicus brief recommendingthat post-conviction proceedings initiated by a capital prisoner should be suspended when a mental disorder or disability prevents the prisoner from understanding his situation or communicating with his counsel, and when such communication would be necessary to the fair adjudication of that prisoner’s legal challenges to his conviction or sentence.”

(J. Floyd, “What to Watch for in this Action-Packed Supreme Court Term,” WNYC, October 1, 2012). See Mental Illness and U.S. Supreme Court. Listen to DPIC’s podcast on Mental Illness and on the Supreme Court.