The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Trumbull County death row inmate Sean Carter cannot indefinitely stay his execution with his continued claim of mental incompetence in the federal appellate court.
In a unanimous decision - the first ever from the high court dealing with a local criminal case - justices overturned the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had permitted Carter to stall his habeas corpus proceedings in the federal court system for nearly a decade.
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 Sixth Circuit and leading to the filing with the U.S. Supreme Court.
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.
''Tuesday's opinion gives proper guidance to our federal courts in addressing these issues of mental incompetence and the effect such mental issues have on a pending federal claim,'' said Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, who thanked the Ohio Attorney General's Office for agreeing to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Watkins successfully tried the Carter case in 1998 and saw the case through the state appellate system with chief appellate assistant prosecutor LuWayne Annos.
''The state and the judge bent over backwards to determine Carter's competency at trial,'' Watkins said Tuesday. ''The competency was tested twice, and three out of four doctors found him competent. The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously confirmed the death penalty in 2000.''
Watkins and Annos both pointed out how U.S. Justice Clarence Thomas ruled that federal law does not recognize a statutory right to competence in federal habeas proceedings. Thomas also wrote that the federal law relied upon by the U.S. Sixth Circuit applies to federal inmates, not state prisoners like Carter.
Carter's mental incompetence could become an issue at an execution, Watkins admitted. Watkins said he will seek a new execution date for Carter once the federal appeals are exhausted.
''When you have a (court) record-based habeas 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 Annos.
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.