ILNews

Court rules on habeas corpus competency case

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case of first impression today regarding a prisoner's competency to continue on with habeas corpus proceedings. In its decision, the Circuit Court remanded to the District Court.

Circuit Judge Richard Posner wrote the court finds it odd to think that someone who initiates a habeas corpus proceeding can then later freeze it by claiming to be mentally incompetent. That is what Eric Holmes is claming in Eric D. Holmes v. Edwin G. Buss, 04-3549, 06-2905. Holmes has been sentenced to death for committing two murders in 1992.

Holmes filed two petitions for federal habeas corpus but later claimed he was not competent to assist his lawyer with the proceedings. District Judge Larry McKinney ruled in 2003 Holmes was competent after questioning him and denied habeas corpus relief. Holmes appealed, and in 2005 the 7th Circuit remanded to the District Court to determine Holmes' competency to proceed with the appeal because his counsel had said Holmes' mental condition had deteriorated since the April 2003 hearing. This time, Judge McKinney consulted two expert doctors and also questioned Holmes. Judge McKinney also denied Holmes' request that one of the doctors be made available for cross-examination; the appeal in the 7th Circuit then continued.

The 9th Circuit Court held that in a capital case a petitioner for federal habeas corpus must be competent to assist his counsel, and if not, the proceeding must be stayed, Rohan ex rel. Gates v. Woodford, 334 F.3d 803 (9th Cir. 2003). In a capital case, it makes sense a prisoner would seek to be proven to be incompetent after trial because an execution can be stayed until he is evaluated.

The state in this case argues there should be a higher standard for assessing incompetence after trial because the client's role in assisting his attorney in a post-conviction proceeding is more limited than if he is on trial; Holmes argues that the standard should be the same.

Judge Posner wrote the idea of creating different standards to determine competence is not a good idea. The competency test should include the litigant's particular mental condition and the nature of the decision that he must be competent to make.

Judge McKinney made his decision that Holmes was competent to assist his attorney in the appellate phase of habeas corpus proceedings based on what Holmes said at the hearings. Judge Posner wrote that the Circuit Court is puzzled that Judge McKinney didn't allow cross-examination the doctors who examined Holmes.

The case is remanded to the District Court to determine Holmes' competency.
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  1. Major social engineering imposed by judicial order well in advance of democratic change, has been the story of the whole post ww2 period. Contraception, desegregation, abortion, gay marriage: all rammed down the throats of Americans who didn't vote to change existing laws on any such thing, by the unelected lifetime tenure Supreme court heirarchs. Maybe people came to accept those things once imposed upon them, but, that's accommodation not acceptance; and surely not democracy. So let's quit lying to the kids telling them this is a democracy. Some sort of oligarchy, but no democracy that's for sure, and it never was. A bourgeois republic from day one.

  2. JD Massur, yes, brings to mind a similar stand at a Texas Mission in 1836. Or Vladivostok in 1918. As you seemingly gloat, to the victors go the spoils ... let the looting begin, right?

  3. I always wondered why high fence deer hunting was frowned upon? I guess you need to keep the population steady. If you don't, no one can enjoy hunting! Thanks for the post! Fence

  4. Whether you support "gay marriage" or not is not the issue. The issue is whether the SCOTUS can extract from an unmentionable somewhere the notion that the Constitution forbids government "interference" in the "right" to marry. Just imagine time-traveling to Philadelphia in 1787. Ask James Madison if the document he and his fellows just wrote allowed him- or forbade government to "interfere" with- his "right" to marry George Washington? He would have immediately- and justly- summoned the Sergeant-at-Arms to throw your sorry self out into the street. Far from being a day of liberation, this is a day of capitulation by the Rule of Law to the Rule of What's Happening Now.

  5. With today's ruling, AG Zoeller's arguments in the cases of Obamacare and Same-sex Marriage can be relegated to the ash heap of history. 0-fer

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