WASHINGTON – Supreme Court justices quizzed both sides in an Arizona case Tuesday over how long a death penalty appeal can reasonably be delayed if a defendant is not mentally competent to assist in his defense.
The questions came in the case of Ernest Valencia Gonzales, an Arizona death-row inmate whose appeal was put on hold in 2010 by a federal court that said he was not competent.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne argued to the high court that the ruling would open the door to an indefinite delay in the imposition of the death sentence in capital cases.
Horne said the Supreme Court should create a standard that would let lower courts issue stays in such cases of “six to nine months” – but no more than a year. He said that number came from the American Psychiatric Association, which filed a brief with the court.
That appeared to carry little weight with the justices.
“They’re not lawyers, right? They’re psychiatrists,” said Justice Antonin Scalia.
Gonzales’ attorney, Arizona Assistant Federal Public Defender Leticia Marquez, argued that federal courts should be allowed discretion to grant stays for as long as necessary in capital cases.
Marquez said Gonzales’ mental condition has deteriorated since his 1991 trial to the point where does not speak to her. But she needs to speak with Gonzales about his alleged antagonistic relationship with his trial judge, a situation she said she needs to understand in order to argue his appeal.
Horne disagreed, saying the appeal can continue without Gonzales’ input because of the large amount of evidence already in the record.
“It appears to us highly unlikely that he has information he didn’t disclose earlier” when he was deemed competent, Horne said.
The justices pressed Horne’s point with Marquez, noting that what she needed could probably be proven through court transcripts.
But Marquez said she has not had access to Gonzales and does not have a current release to review his medical records.
Gonzales was convicted in 1991 of first-degree murder in the 1990 stabbing death of Darrel Wagner.
Wagner, his wife, Deborah and their son, then 7, came home one evening to find lights in their townhouse and Gonzales inside, with the family’s VCR under one arm.
Gonzales stabbed Darrel Wagner repeatedly. Deborah Wagner, who sent their son to get help, jumped on Gonzales’ back and was stabbed twice.
Darrel Wagner died later that night, and Deborah Wagner was in intensive care for five days.
Gonzales was sentenced to death for that murder and given three consecutive life sentences for other counts. His sentence was upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court in 1995, and Gonzales began his federal appeals.
In 2008, a federal district judge rejected Gonzales’ request for a stay based on a defense claim he was incompetent. But the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals intervened in October 2010 and granted the stay, leading to Tuesday’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Outside the courtroom, Marquez said she does not think time limits are practical, and she hopes the Supreme Court will “reiterate a district’s court discretion to issue stays in these types of cases.”
She said the fear that this would open the floodgates to indefinite stalling by death-row inmates is unlikely. Very few cases have been granted such stays in federal courts, she said.
But Horne said outside the court that it takes about 18 years from verdict to execution in the 9th Circuit and that’s too long.
“It doesn’t do any good to pass laws if you can’t enforce them,” Horne said.
He said he was optimistic after Tuesday’s arguments that “the court seems to be going in our direction.”