U.S. Supreme Court justices are expected to rule some time next year on whether a federal judge can delay appeals of local death row inmate Sean Carter while determining whether he is competent enough to assist in his own defense.
Similar oral arguments in the case of Carter and Arizona death row inmate Ernest Gonzales were heard Tuesday in Washington, marking the first time a criminal case from Trumbull County was heard by the high court.
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 Carter and Gonzales say federal judges should have discretion to hold up the proceedings until they're ready. And Carter's competency has been questioned since 2007.
The federal government and some states argue there should be no delays in cases when the necessary information can be found in state trial records, and say there should be a time limit in all other instances.
Lawyers on both sides also cited a court filing by the American Psychiatric Association which said that up to 90 percent of competency cases are resolved in six to nine months.
And an assistant Trumbull County prosecutor, who heard the arguments Tuesday, said the whole process can ''grind to a halt'' while competency is argued or being restored.
''When you have a (court) record-based habeus action, it doesn't matter if the defendant communicates with his attorney. It's simply a record-based claim. Carter, for example, can't contribute anything to the proceedings,'' said LuWayne Annos, chief appellate assistant for Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins.
''What justices seemed to be focused on is the time frame in which to restore competency,'' Annos said.
''Judge (W. Wyatt) McKay already found Sean Carter competent before his trial got under way. A defendant's input is not needed here. If they want to set a time frame of between six months and a year, fine. If competency is restored, proceed. If not, proceed without the defendant,'' Watkins said.
The lawyers for Carter and Gonzales urged justices to rule that federal judges have discretion to hold up proceedings until the inmates are ready.
Carter, 33, currently on death row in Chillicothe Correctional Institution, was convicted on Sept. 14, 1997, of raping and murdering his adoptive grandmother.
He was serving time for auto theft in Geauga County Jail before the murder of Veader Prince, 68, who had adopted Carter at age 9. She was found in her Southington home, beaten stabbed and raped. He also stole money when he fled from the house.
Carter, then 18, confessed to the crime shortly after being arrested by Pennsylvania police.
The federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled in May 2011 that Carter's latest appeal should be sent back to the district court level and action postponed until the convicted murderer's competency is restored.
In late 2007, Carter was transferred from death row to Oakwood Correctional Facility because of a declining mental condition. Oakwood is a psychiatric prison. He has since been transferred back to Chillicothe, where most death row inmates are incarcerated.
Originally, former Federal Judge Peter Economus dismissed prosecutors' filing to have Carter returned to death row. Economus ruled that the action - called a habeas corpus filing - could be re-filed when competency was restored.
Ohio appealed that decision, which resulted in a split decision from the 6th Circuit and leading to the filing with the U.S. Supreme Court.
In making his ruling, Economus wrote, ''(Carter) has been disoriented and unable to comprehend or respond to communications from others. His daily functioning, while previously restricted, also has deteriorated with extremely poor personal hygiene and lack of consistent sleep habits due to nightly, persistent screaming and laughing.''
Gonzales murdered a man during a burglary in 1990 in Arizona and was sentenced to death there before federal appeals judges ruled that Gonzales' federal appeal could be delayed pending a competency determination after a lower court denied his request for a stay and a competency hearing.
The Associated Press contributed to the story.