Should Courts Wait for Inmates to be Competent?

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WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court is questioning whether federal judges can delay appeals from death row inmates while determining whether an inmate is competent enough to assist in his or her own defense.

Inmates appealing state death sentences have a right to a lawyer in their federal appeal. But the courts have never said whether inmates have to be competent enough to help their lawyer.

Lawyers for Arizona death row inmate Ernest Gonzales and Ohio death row inmate Sean Carter say yes, and federal judges should have discretion to hold up proceedings until they're ready.

But the federal government and some states argue there should be no delays in cases when the necessary information can be found state trial records, and say there should be a time limit in all other instances.