Is Last Week’s Supreme Court Decision a Blow for Anti-Death Penalty Advocates?

In a rare unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court narrowed another avenue of appeals for death row inmates, ruling that federal judges cannot indefinitely delay appeals of state criminal convictions in the hope that an incompetent defendant might eventually become competent enough to help his or her lawyer out with the appeals process.

The ruling came from a pair of cases. Both Ernest Valencia Gonzales and Sean Carter were convicted of murder and received capital sentences. Both brought legal challenges in federal court after their state court trials. By the time the federal courts actually considered the two men’s challenges to their state court convictions, there was significant evidence that they were both mentally incompetent. In both cases the appeals courts said the challenges must wait until the men could return to mental competence but relied on different federal statutes to support that conclusion.

Writing for the bench, Justice Clarence Thomas dismissed outright the idea that a defendant must be competent in order to assist his or her attorney with the appeals process. Noting that postconviction challenges typically are based on the court record and nothing else, an inmate would have very little to add to the appellate process, said Thomas. “Counsel can generally provide effective representation to a habeas petitioner regardless of the petitioner’s competence,” Justice Thomas wrote, adding that “attorneys are quite capable of reviewing the state-court record, identifying legal errors and marshaling relevant arguments, even without their clients’ assistance.”

Furthermore, 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.

Instead of relying on a cloudy area of case law to support their claim that they were entitled to stays pending competency, the inmates argued that federal trial judges should have discretion to enter stays, and the Supreme Court agreed. “We do not presume that district courts need unsolicited advice from us on how to manage their dockets,” Justice Thomas wrote. “For purposes of resolving these cases, it is unnecessary to determine the precise contours of the district court’s discretion to issue stays.”

While this may sound like bad news for anti-death penalty advocates, the decision is not as bad as it may seem. Right now a prisoner’s competency to assist counsel is an issue in approximately a dozen capital cases pending nationwide Dale Baich, an attorney at the federal public defender’s office that represented one of the defendants told Reuters. And the Supreme Court’s decision leaves open room for federal courts to put some appeals on hold which means that rather than a blanket ruling holding that competency is not required to assist in an appeal, the Supreme Court crafted a narrower standard that tries to reflect some of the practical realities of litigating criminal cases, even capital ones.

We’ve yet to adequately deal with how to assess the guilt or culpability of a mentally ill individual which means we ultimately have no guarantee those we are trying and executing are mentally competent, and indeed the evidence usually suggests closer to the opposite is true. Unfortunately, until states and Congress eradicate capital punishment entirely, something that doesn’t seem likely in the immediate future, this kind of decision is going to have to count as a win.


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Photo from decade_null via flickr.


Donnaa D.
donnaa d3 years ago

I abhor the death penalty, I've sent a green star to the person who advocated a different way, and its viable, incararate them yes, but make them earn their living once in prison, and no easy options, no tv's until they've earn such a privilege, all privileges should be earned by the effort they put in. do away with the death penalty, because 2 wrongs do not make a right, and make those who sentence them as guilty as the perpetrator!

Christine Jones
Christine J3 years ago

It is a complex issue, but I'm glad we don't have the death penalty in Australia.

Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin3 years ago

Sorry for breaking the discussion between Susan A. and Albert L., but i believe there are more than two solutions. The death penalty is cruel because it's final. There are way too many people executed while being innocent as it is. A few examples from history: Joe Hill, Mrs. Rosenberg, Sacco & Vanzetti. As I said, it's final. No resurrection possible when the truth comes out. Even if there's proof beyond any reasonable doubt the person committed the crime; Why is it that some people get executed and others incarcerated for life? Some have killed one or two and are executed, some have killed 20 or 30 and remain alive while in prison for life.
Then there's the third option. Let me elaborate. A capital punishment trial and execution costs millions of dollars. The trial itself with lawyer fees, jurors, length of trial, etc and then appeals, and fianlly the execution in itself. It's all very costly.
Life in prison also costs money. But protecting the public isn't free. What I react to when we're talking incarceration is that it seems very few prisoners are forced to work. I believe that when you've entered the prison system, most of your rights as a free citizen will be taken away. I suggest that prisoners are forced to do work that somehow benefits the society and whatever money they make from it should go directly into a fund which will distribute money to the victims and their families. Prisoners should also be obligated to perform other duties not related to their daily

Eric Hurner
Eric Hurner3 years ago


The death penalty is there because a frightened and often religious population wants it. It cannot possibly serve any other purpose.

Eric Hurner
Eric Hurner3 years ago

I have just looked at what has been written once again. To Albert L. I don't believe there is any penalty that one could call fitting for something like that. It is like imposing a debt of one million dollars on someone who earns $100 per month. They can incur the debt, but they can never pay it off.

If the purpose of our justice system is to find fitting punishments, then we can forget about any chance of success and would end up in endless feuds with one another. The purpose is far rather to take the situation out of the hands of the individual and into society as a whole so that the entire situation can be calmly assessed and a solution found that is least destructive to all concerned. The idea that someone is guilty per se on a kind of black and white right and wrong scale is simply not part of the rule of law. In order to decide whether a person is guilty or not, you have to first catch them, then hear the various points of view, then find a solution that does not upset too many people.

The calmer and more objective all parties remain in this process, the more likely it is that a solution can be found that is just, if not appropriate. In the case you mention, the killer's side of the story has not been heard. We might have a very different view once that was heard. I would in any case not even attempt to decide on a course of action when a large part of the information needed to decide the case is missing.

The death penalty is there because a frightened and of

Magdalen B.
Magdalen B3 years ago

When you get it wrong, you can't resurrect them.

Albert L.
Past Member 3 years ago

Susan A., Take care. I have my answer actually. I'm just wondering if we remove the death penalty, what would others see as a punishment that fits the crime.

What is hard for me to imagine is keeping this person in prison for the rest of their life. That means our country is paying to keep him alive and protected from those families he harmed so that he can continue on living. Perhaps he might be killed in prison, but we don't know that.

So nice talking to you Susan.

Susan Allen
SusanAWAY Allen3 years ago

Albert L., other ways, at this point in time, would be imprisonment for life.

But let's see, on a lighter side; probably my favorite sci-fi method for dealing with horrendous criminals was a complete mind wipe and I'm pretty sure the show was Babylon 5. Seems like it was a serial killer whose mind had been wiped and he was turned into a peace loving person working in a monastery somewhere. Anyway, you get the picture. There was another, where the criminal was forced to re-live, in their mind, their crime every so many hours. You know, all sci-fi fantasy, but whatever; would be nice if there were other choices between life forever and death.

I simply think, and I'll say no more on the subject, that the death penalty is wrong. I do not condone it for any reason. I have no trust that our legal system will not execute innocents, either by mistake (hopefully) or on purpose (never say never).

So Albert L., it's been real; I hope you get the answer for which you're searching :)

Albert L.
Past Member 3 years ago

Susan A.

You said, "I believe it to be barbaric; especially as there are other ways."

And I guess that is what I'm asking is what are those other ways?

Sci-Fi, huh?

You mean like put the prisoners in suspended animation like in Demolition Man? Or perhaps Deadlock with Rutger Hauer?


Susan Allen
SusanAWAY Allen3 years ago

Albert L., I doubt the guy you describe would actually last in prison very long which is a sad thing to say about our prison system, but I do believe he would die in prison at the hands of other prisoners. I believe our prisons are way over crowded and alot of that has to do with the vast numbers of people we have in prison over drugs, which imo is wrong. Empty the prisons of those people and we'd have plenty of room and money to house people committing real crimes such as the one you described. Besides that and being the sci-fi fan that I am, I would like science to come up with another alternative entirely. I've seen many espoused in the sci-fi genre; and I don't mean that to be funny. I just do wish there was another way besides incarceration and/or death. As for my reasoning as to why I feel I should be able to kill someone in the scenario I described and not the state has to do with premeditation. If I killed another in the scenario I described, I would be doing so in self-defense. If the state does it, that's another matter altogether. The state does not have to kill, there are other alternatives available. I posted on this thread earlier about the countries still utilizing the death penalty, as have others. We are one of just a very few countries still killing our own people. I believe it to be barbaric; especially as there are other ways.