Supreme Court Halts Execution of Mentally Ill Inmate

Jul 01, 1998

In a surprising 7-2 ruling in May, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a condemned inmate was entitled to federal habeas corpus review of his death sentence based on claims of mental incompetence. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William O. Rehnquist let stand a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that delayed the execution of an Arizona prisoner pending a sanity determination in federal court.

In a surprising 7-2 ruling in May, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a condemned inmate was entitled to federal habeas corpus review of his death sentence based on claims of mental incompetence. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William O. Rehnquist let stand a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that delayed the execution of an Arizona prisoner pending a sanity determination in federal court.

The decision by the high court bucked the recent trend to expedite executions by limiting the number of post-conviction appeals. The speedier imposition of death penalties is not only the consequence of more conservative rulings by various appellate courts, but is also the result of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) passed by Congress in 1996. The 9th Circuit is considered one of the most independent jurisdictions in the federal system, and is notorious for having its rulings overturned. The Supreme Court has reversed eight of the 11 9th Circuit decisions it has reviewed this term.

In Stewart v. Martinez-Villareal (Sup. Ct. Docket No. 97-300) (1998), however, the justices refused to block the defendant's habeas corpus petition despite provisions prohibiting "second" or "successive" appeals. During a previous habeas corpus petition, Martinez-Villareal claimed that he was mentally incompetent to be executed, but a federal district court dismissed the request saying that it was not ripe for adjudication because no execution date had been set. A 1986 Supreme Court decision prohibits execution of individuals found to be legally insane (Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 106 S. Ct. 2595, 91 L.Ed.2d 335).

After the state trial court decided the defendant was competent to be executed and the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed, the federal petition was renewed, only to be opposed by prosecutors under the AEDPA. Justice Rehnquist's decision, however, held that since the claim was never decided on its merits, the current application by the defendant was not a second or successive application. "If the State's interpretation of 'second or successive' were correct, the implications for habeas corpus would be far-reaching, and seemingly perverse," Rehnquist wrote.

In scathing dissents, justices Anton Scalia and Clarence Thomas countered that the AEDPA was clear in its intent to thwart continuous appeals of death sentences. "To say that it is 'perverse' to deny respondent a second round of time-consuming lower federal court review of his conviction and sentence-because that means forgoing lower federal court review of a competency to be executed claim that arises only after he has already sought federal habeas on other issues-is to say that state court determinations must always be reviewable, not merely by this Court, but by federal district courts," Scalia wrote-MJG

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