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Supreme Court narrows avenue for death row appeals

A police officer patrols the front of the U.S. Supreme Court prior to the swearing in of judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Court in Washington, A
A police officer patrols the front of the U.S. Supreme Court prior to the swearing in of judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Court in Washington, A

By Jonathan Stempel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two death row inmates were not entitled to a delay of their federal appeals on the grounds that they were incompetent to assist their lawyers, the Supreme Court said on Tuesday.

In a unanimous ruling against inmates Ernest Valencia Gonzales and Sean Carter, the court also said federal judges cannot indefinitely delay appeals of state criminal convictions in the hope that the defendants might eventually become competent enough to help out.

Justice Clarence Thomas said defense lawyers are "quite capable" of reviewing cases without their clients' help and can identify arguments or state court errors that can be raised on appeal.

He said a district judge who believes an incompetent defendant could substantially aid in his defense should examine the likelihood that the defendant will regain competence.

In contrast, "where there is no reasonable hope of competence, a stay merely frustrates the state's attempts to defend its presumptively valid judgment," Thomas wrote.

Gonzales was convicted by an Arizona jury in the stabbings of two people in front of their seven-year-old son during a burglary. One of the victims died.

Carter was found guilty by an Ohio jury of the rape and stabbing death of his adoptive grandmother.

Dale Baich, who works in the federal public defender's office that represented Gonzales, noted that Supreme Court decision left room for federal courts to put some appeals on hold. A prisoner's competency to assist counsel is an issue in roughly one dozen capital cases pending nationwide, he said.

A lawyer for Carter was not immediately available to comment.

Thomas said the federal appeals courts that put both cases on hold erred in relying on two federal statutes to find that defendants must be competent.

A requirement of competency also does not flow from a defendant's right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he wrote.

The court also said it was "unwarranted" to extrapolate a definitive rule based on a 1960s case involving an incompetent death row inmate that it put on hold for nearly three decades. That case ended when the prisoner died.

The cases are Ryan v. Gonzales, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 10-930; and Tibbals v. Carter, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-218.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Eddie Evans and Steve Orlofsky)

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