Last week the United States Supreme Court considered a case which will decide whether a federal judge has the authority to indefinitely stay a criminal defendant's Appeal pending a determination that the inmate is mentally competent to assist their attorney in the appeal. A defendant appealing a death sentence in federal court has a legal right to an attorney but there has never been a determination that the defendant has to be mentally fit to pursue that appeal. This case involves Sean Carter, who was convicted in Ohio of the murder of his grandmother after he had been released from prison in 1997 and was sentenced to death. The other case involves Ernest Gonzalez, who was convicted of first degree murder during a burglary in Arizona in 1999 and sentenced to death. The federal judge handling Carter's appeal stayed the appeal until he was mentally competent but the Court of Appeals changed the ruling to allow the part of the appeal that did not require his cooperation to proceed. In Gonzalez's case the trial judge ruled that his appeal would not be delayed while the Court of Appeals stayed the appeal until he was ruled mentally competent. The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on these cases, which involve a common question of whether a defendant must be mentally competent while an appeal is pursued on their behalf. Court observers who were at the oral arguments seem to think that the majority of the Court is leaning towards ruling against the proposition that an inmate has to be mentally competent. The Court is expected to issue its ruling later this year.
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