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US Supreme Court Rules Favorably On Death Penalty Case Personally Argued By AG Horne

PHOENIX (Tuesday, January 08, 2013) - The United States Supreme Court today unanimously reversed a Ninth Circuit decision that had permitted death row inmates to delay their federal appellate proceedings indefinitely based on a claim that they were not competent to assist their attorney. 

Attorney General Tom Horne personally argued the case on October 9, 2012. 

“This is an important victory,” Horne said.  “Under the now-vacated Ninth Circuit court ruling, criminals facing the death penalty could drag out the appeals process almost indefinitely on grounds that had no bearing on the merits of the case.  The unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court will result in swifter justice being carried out.”

In the decision, Ryan v Gonzales, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed with Horne that limits should be placed on the excessive delays imposed by Federal Courts, on the States carrying out their judgments in death penalty cases for brutal murders. 

In this case, Ernest Valencia Gonzales, a convicted burglar on probation, repeatedly stabbed Darrel Wagner in front of his wife, Deborah, during a burglary of the Wagner’s home in Phoenix in 1990. 

Gonzales was burglarizing the Wagner’s home a when they returned from a dinner celebrating Darrel Wagner’s recent promotion.  Mrs. Wagner pleaded with Gonzales to stop stabbing her husband, but he would not.  When she jumped on his back to try to get him to stop, Gonzales stabbed her as well.  She was in intensive care, but survived. Her husband died of the multiple stab wounds.  Gonzales was on probation at the time of the crime, had a long record of prior crimes, and was sentenced to death. 

Deborah Wagner was distressed to be victimized a second time, as the Federal Courts delayed her ability to see justice done, for 14 years, through the Federal Habeas Corpus process.  The Ninth Circuit imposed an indefinite stay, on the grounds that the prisoner’s mental state had deteriorated, and he could no longer provide help to his lawyers in the Federal Habeas Corpus proceeding.

Horne appealed to the United States Supreme Court.  He argued that victim’s families have a right to see justice done in a reasonable period of time.  Research shows this is a benefit to their healing process.  Also, it doesn’t do a state any good to pass laws if it can’t enforce them. 

Horne made two legal arguments:

  • In this case, as in most Federal Habeas cases, the determination is made on the record, and therefore the lawyer does not need the prisoners help, because the lawyer can read the record himself. 
  • Second, in those few cases where there are hearings in Federal Habeas, any stay granted for the purpose of treating the prisoner’s mental state should be limited, not indefinite as in the case of the Ninth Circuit decision.

The United States Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Horne on both issues, and reversed the Ninth Circuit decision.

Assistant Attorneys General Kent Cattani and John Todd assisted Attorney General Horne with briefing and argument preparation.

A copy of the ruling is attached.

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