US Supreme Court Grants Writ on Two Habeas - Mental Incompetency Cases

For those that know Terry or have read his memoir, Heinous, Atrocious and Cruel (see it there in the left sidebar), you know that he is very concerned about mentally challenged individuals being sentenced to death not just in Florida but elsewhere in this country.  

Which means we'll be carefully following two cases that are now pending before the United States Supreme Court - they've granted review in both and oral arguments should be happening in the Fall.  One comes out of Ohio; the other out of Arizona. 

The two cases?  Ryan v. Gonzalez (follow online here).and Tibbals v. Carter (follow online here).  By granting writ here, the High Court will determine if mentally incompetent individuals who are already on Death Row are entitled under the law to a stay of federal habeas proceedings because they cannot effectively assist their counsel.

In the lower court appellate opinions, both cases held that the individual needs to be mentally competent in order for there to be federal habeas proceedings.  In both cases, stays were ordered with no end date.  Now, the High Court has responded to requests by the states (prosecutors) that these stays be terminated and the proceedings move forward. 

Precedent to consider? 

Rees v. Peyton (1966)

Ford v. Wainwright (1986) - insanity means no death penalty

Atkins v. Virginia (2002) -  "mental retardation" (phrase from the case itself) means no death penalty

Questions Presented:


Several years after Gonzales's counsel initiated federal habeas proceedings and filed an exhaustive petition seeking relief, counsel asserted that Gonzales was incompetent to communicate rationally and the proceedings should be indefinitely stayed pending possible restoration of competency.  Based on 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2), the Ninth Circuit agreed, even though Gonzales's claims were record-based or purely legal.

Did the Ninth Circuit err when it held that 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2)-which provides that an indigent capital state inmate pursuing federal habeas relief "shall be entitled to the appointment of one or more attorneys"-impliedly entitles a death row inmate to stay the federal habeas proceedings he initiated if he is not competent to assist counsel?


1.         Do capital prisoners possess a "right to competence" in federal habeas proceedings under Rees v. Peyton, 384 U.S. 312 (1966)?
2.         Can a federal district court order an indefinite stay of a federal habeas proceeding under Rees?


The Extraordinary Story of Mohammad Mostafaei and His Fight to Keep Kids From Being Executed in Iran

Anthony George of the Guardian wrote Terry and asked if this video could be placed on the blog.  Here it is, honored to be asked. 

Female Federal Death Row Inmate Angela Johnson Death Sentence Vacated by Federal Judge: Defense Failure at Trial Held to be "Disfunctional"

There is an interesting case being played out in Iowa right now - interesting because not only does it involves a woman on Death Row facing the death penalty, but also because it involves the federal death penalty statute.

Here's what's going on.

Last week, United States District Judge Mark Bennett, setting on the U.S. District Court Bench for the Northern District of Iowa, removed Angela Johnson - one of the two women setting on federal death row - from a death sentence, and gave a big, basic reason for his action as part of a 448-page ruling (that's a ream of paper to give his decision, imagine that):

the trial lawyers defending the woman in a trial where she was found guilty of the execution-style murders of five people did not present mitigating evidence about her troubled mental state that could have spared her from capital punishment.

(For more about mitigating evidence, read our earlier post on the subject, or delve into details about how mitgation works by reading Terry's case book/memoir shown in the left sidebar, where he describes case after case and the realities of mitigation evidence.)

Judge Bennett does not mince words: he tossed out  the death penalty sentence finding that her criminal defense attorneys had been "... alarmingly dysfunctional...." during the trial.

Read Judge Bennett's Ruling - all 448 pages of it -- online here.

What happens next?

Angela Johnson made the history books when she was given the death penalty because she was the first woman to be sentenced to death in the federal system since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty back in 1976.

She's still guilty of the crime, that hasn't changed.  Judge Bennett did not erase the conviction -- and under the law, Angela Johnson is still - in the words of Judge Bennett - overwhelmingly guilty of going with her then-boyfriend, alleged to be the leading methamphetamine dealer in the Midwest, to kill and then bury the bodies of federal informants (and drug dealers) Terry DeGeus and Greg Nicholson, along with Nicholson's girlfriend, Lori Duncan and her young daughters, Kandi, 10, and Amber, 6. 

Attorney General Eric Holder must make a decision.  The U.S. Attorney General has to decide if the federal government will try and get the death penalty again for Angela Johnson, or not.  They've got a 60 day deadline.  They can appeal this judge's ruling (and with that ream of paper, sounds like the judge is expecting this) or they can go back to trial and there would then be evidence presented once again regarding her sentencing. 

If that's the path that's taken by the U.S. Attorney, then the mitigating factors that upset Judge Bennett will come before the court ... and for the first time, evidence about her mental health will be a consideration in deciding whether or not she should be executed. 


Several New, Excellent Law Review Articles on Death Penalty Issues Available Online For Your Consideration

One of the great things about the internet is its ability to educate and inform, and here's yet another example of that:  several excellent articles discussing aspects of the death penalty, and specifically, death penalty defense, have appeared this month.

All, available for free, online.  Please consider reading the following:

Defendant remorse, need for affect, and juror sentencing decisions

by Emily P. Corwin, BA, Robert J. Cramer, PhD, Desiree A. Griffin, PhD and Stanley L. Brodsky, PhD

Journal of the American Academy of  Psychiatry and the Law Online, 2012

Landmarks, Portents, or Just Curves in the Road?

by Carol Nackenoff

Tulsa L. Rev., 2011

But He Knew It Was Wrong: Evaluating Adolescent Culpability

by Peter Ash, M.D.

Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online 2012

An Alternative to Death-Qualification: The Nonunanimous Penalty Jury

by John Tucker

Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository 2012

Commentary: Pursuing Justice in Death Penalty Trials

by Clarence Watson, JD, MD, Spencer Eth, MD and Gregory B. Leong, MD

Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online 2012

Burden of Proof in Establishing Mental Retardation in Capital Cases

by Alexander Westphal MD and Madelon Baranoski, PhD

Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online  2012



New Book: The Death Penalty Indigent Defense Crisis: Representing the Poor When the State Wants to Kill Them and It's Paying Your Bill


Written by Terence Lenamon and Reba Kennedy, this short ebook (30,000 word count) is offered to anyone interested in the American criminal justice system, particularly in the areas of capital punishment and the right to counsel provided the poor under federal constitutional mandate as well as various state statutes. It is provided as an economical, hands-on resource written with the non-lawyer reader in mind.

Written by the co-authors of the blog, “Terry Lenamon on the Death Penalty,” in answer to questions from readers about how the system of indigent defense in death penalty cases works in the real world – and why -- the books gives a concise overview of the death penalty indigent defense crisis – where it originated, where it is today.

In a skipping stones approach to a complicated subject matter some areas necessarily aren’t addressed here and others are just touched upon. What this work provides is an overview with endnotes, resources lists, and hyperlinks, written to help non-lawyers learn more about indigent defense generally and its impact upon the death penalty today, specifically. Its intent is to provide a practical tool for those working toward finding real solutions to the tragic and mounting crisis of indigent defense funding in death penalty cases today.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...