US Supreme Court Holds Incompetence of State Prisoner Does Not Suspend Federal Habeas Proceeding

Ryan v. Gonzales, 568 U.S. __(2013)
slip opinion available at: . Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the decision for a unanimous court.

The United States Supreme Court decided on January 8, 2013 in two consolidated capital cases that the incompetence of state prisoners does not suspend federal habeas corpus proceedings under either 18 U.S.C. § 3599 or 18 U.S.C. § 4241, reversing the decisions of the Ninth and Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeal.

An Arizona jury convicted Ernest Valencia Gonzales of felony murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault, first-degree burglary and theft. Gonzales had repeatedly stabbed a husband and his wife in front of their 7-year-old son during a burglary of their home. The husband died but his wife survived after several days of intensive care. The trial court sentenced Gonzales to death on the murder charge and to prison terms on the other charges.

After exhausting his state court remedies, Gonzales filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. Gonzales’ appointed counsel filed a motion to stay the petition on the grounds that Gonzales was no longer capable of communicating or assisting his counsel. The Ninth Circuit had previously held in Rohan v. Woodford, 334 F.3d 803 (9th Cir. 2003), that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2), the federal statute guaranteeing state capital prisoner’s a right to counsel in federal habeas proceedings required that the petitioner be sufficiently competent when he raises claims that could potentially benefit from his ability to communicate with counsel. If he is not competent, he is entitled to a stay of the proceedings pending his restoration to competency. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that without a stay, the petitioner is denied his right to counsel. Although applying Rohan, the district court, nevertheless, denied Gonzales a stay. It determined that the claims he raised were based on the record before the trial court or were resolvable as a matter of law ,and his lack of competence would therefore not affect his counsel’s ability to represent him. Gonzales then filed an emergency petition for writ of mandamus in the Ninth Circuit. While his case was pending, the Ninth Circuit decided Nash v. Ryan, 581 F.3d 1048 (2009), holding that habeas petitioners have an absolute right to competence on appeal, even though appeals are entirely record-based. The Ninth Circuit thereupon granted Gonzales’ writ and entered a stay pending his competency determination. The Supreme Court granted Arizona a writ of certiorari.

In the second case, an Ohio jury convicted Sean Carter of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, and rape, and sentenced him to death for anally raping his adoptive grandmother and stabbing her to death. After exhausting his state court appeals, Carter’s attorney filed a federal habeas petition along with a motion requesting a competency determination and a stay of his proceedings. Following several psychiatric evaluations, the district court found Carter incompetent to assist counsel and, applying the Ninth Circuit’s test in Rohan, finding that Carter’s assistance was necessary to develop four of his exhausted state court claims. As a result, the district court then dismissed the habeas petition without prejudice and tolled the stature of limitations under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit recognized that federal habeas petitioners do not have a constitutional right to competence, but found a statutory right to competence under 18 U.S.C. §4241, relying in part on the Supreme Court’s decision in Rees v. Peyton, 384 U.S. 312 (1966). Rees required that a Virginia habeas petitioner awaiting the death penalty who decided to forego any further appeals of his conviction or sentence be competent enough to understand the nature of the proceeding and assist counsel before he could withdraw his habeas petition. The Sixth Circuit then ordered that Carter’s petition be stayed indefinitely with respect to any claims that required his assistance. The Supreme Court granted Ohio’s petition for writ of certiorari and consolidated the two cases for review.

On review, the Supreme Court noted not only that there is no constitutional right to counsel in habeas proceedings, but there is no due process right at all to collateral review. Murray v. Giarratano, 492 U.S. 1, 10 (1989). It acknowledged that the statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2), grants federal habeas petitioners on death row the right to federally funded counsel. It also gives district courts the power to authorize investigative, expert and other services. But the Court found the statute does not require district courts to stay proceedings when habeas petitioners are found incompetent. The Court reasoned that the right of a criminal defendant to competence in the original trial flows from the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and not from the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, even though the right to counsel at trial may be compromised if the defendant is not able to communicate with counsel. Review of a state court conviction in a federal habeas proceedings is limited to the record in existence at the time of the state court trial. Given the backward-looking, record-based nature of habeas proceedings, counsel can therefore effectively represent the petitioner regardless of his competence. The Court went on to find that the Ninth Circuit decision in Rohan incorrectly relied on Rees, a decision which simply dealt with an incompetent capital petitioner’s ability to withdraw his petition for certiorari.

Also reviewing the Sixth Circuit’s conclusion that 18 U.S.C. § 4241 provides a statutory right to competence, the Court found that § 4241 does not even apply to habeas proceedings involving state prisoners. Section 4241 only applies to federal defendants and probationers subject to prosecution by the United States and only to trial proceedings prior to sentencing, or after probation or supervised release. The Court therefore held that neither 18 U.S.C. § 3599 nor § 4241 requires suspension of a capital petitioner’s federal habeas proceeding when he has been adjudicated incompetent.

Both Gonzales and Carter also argued that district courts have the equitable power to stay proceedings when they determine habeas petitioners are incompetent. In Gonzales’ case, the Supreme Court held that the district court correctly found that all of his claims were record-based or resolvable as a matter of law. The district court did not therefore abuse its discretion in denying the stay. In Carter’s case, the district court found that four of his claims could potentially benefit from his assistance. However, the Supreme Court determined that three of the claims were adjudicated in state court post-conviction proceedings and could be reviewed on the record. It found it unclear whether the fourth claim, alleging ineffective assistance of appellate counsel for failing to raise trial counsel’s failure to pursue a competency to stand trial issue, required consultation with counsel. The Court nevertheless held that an indefinite stay would be inappropriate under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act whose purpose is to reduce delay in the execution of state and federal criminal sentences. The Court remanded Carter’s case with instructions that if the court found the fourth claim would substantially benefit from his assistance, the court must take into account the likelihood that Carter will regain competence in the foreseeable future. If there is no reasonable hope of competence, a stay is inappropriate. In a footnote, the Court acknowledged that its opinion does not implicate the prohibition against execution of a death sentence for a prisoner who is insane.

Found in DMHL Volume 32 Issue 1