Supreme Court Rules on Post-Conviction Challenges to Death Sentences

How does this affect the rights of the mentally incompetent?

In January of this year, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in effect, that even if a Death Row inmate is found to be so mentally incompetent as to be unable to contribute to his or her appeals of the sentence, it is no grounds for an automatic stay of execution. This surprisingly unanimous decision calls into question how our justice system treats the mentally incapacitated, particularly when their lives are literally on the line.

Diminished capacity vs. an insanity plea

There is a perception among many in this country that a plea of mental incapacity is merely a tactic employed by defense lawyers to get their clients out of paying for their misdeeds ¾ and that this tactic is often successful. The truth is that considerable evidence is necessary for such a plea to be accepted by the court. Tests, examinations, and interviews with multiple experts are required, and the guidelines for being found incompetent are very specific.

The public also often confuses a defense of diminished capacity with an insanity plea. While neither defense is commonly used in real life, a plea of mens rea (diminished capacity), if accepted, does not result in acquittal the way a successful plea of insanity will. At most, it may result in conviction for a lesser offense.  Diminished capacity refers to the inability of a defendant to comprehend the crime he or she committed, or have the intent to cause harm, due to low intelligence, brain damage or disease.

Diminished capacity post-conviction

The Supreme Court previously ruled that mentally incompetent defendants could not be put on trial or be subjected to the death sentence, but these rulings only protect those found mentally incompetent before trial. The latest decision affects defendants already convicted at trial but before execution. The justices expressed concern that some trial court judges were allowing for indefinite stays of execution based on claims of mental incapacity because they disagreed with the death penalties in their states, and so were using the opportunity to avoid ever carrying out the sentences. This opinion seems questionable, as it hinges on the high court’s ability to know the innermost thoughts of district court judges when making these decisions.

What about prisoners who have hope of regaining their mental competence and contributing to their post-conviction defense, given enough time and treatment? Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s statement that, “Counsel can generally provide effective representation…regardless of the petitioner’s competence” shows a cavalier attitude toward a Death Row inmate’s civil rights. Considering lives are on the line, it seems reasonable that a convict should be given every possible opportunity to recover his or her faculties and help the criminal defense attorney mount as vigorous an appeal as possible.

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