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Mental Competence and Habeas Corpus

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When the state seeks to prosecute someone for a crime, mental incompetence of the defendant halts the proceedings until he is restored to competence.  We saw that most recently in the Tucson shooting case.

What happens when the criminal case is over, the defendant files a habeas corpus petition, and then his lawyer claims he is mentally incompetent.  Should the proceeding screech to a halt?  Of course a mentally incompetent inmate cannot be executed, but couldn't the review of his case proceed so that the execution can be carried out whenever he is restored to competence, rather than starting from square one at that point?

At trial, the theory is that the defendant needs to assist his counsel.  He knows, for example, where he really was at the time of the crime.  In habeas, though, the petitioner typically has much less involvement, and the claim of the need for him to personally assist is weaker.  Further, the petitioner is now the moving party.  A claim that the state cannot proceed against you while you are incompetent is stronger than a claim that you can proceed against the state and then put the proceedings on ice.

Tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Tibbals v. Carter and Ryan v. Gonzales on these issues.  Lyle Denniston has this preview at SCOTUSblog.

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