Supreme Court to take up Arizona death-row case; competence at issue

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by Catherine Holland

azfamily.com

Posted on October 8, 2012 at 9:34 AM

Updated Monday, Oct 15 at 7:07 PM

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WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court is slated to hear Arizona's argument against a court-ordered delay in the execution of a convicted murderer.

Ernest Gonzales killed Darrel Wagner in 1990. He was sentenced to death in April 1992. While on death row, however, Gonzales went insane, becoming unable to communicate with the lawyers handling his appeals in federal court. It's the insanity that prompted an appeals court to issue an indefinite stay of execution.

On Tuesday, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne will go before the Supreme Court and try to convince them to lift that stay.

While Horne says the existing court record should be considered in the appeal, Gonzales' defense attorneys say his entitlement to effective legal counsel requires the 48-year-old to be mentally competent, which he is not.

Gonzales was 25 and had already served time when he stabbed Wagner to death in the course of burglarizing his home. He also stabbed Wagner's wife, badly wounding her.

According to court documents, Gonzales showed signs of mental impairment, as well as violent tendencies, while in prison the first time. In 1990, after nearly 10 years on death row, the symptoms of mental illness reportedly became more serious.

While psychiatrists have determined that Gonzales is psychotic, he has never been declared incompetent in court.

For years, lawyers have fought over the issue of Gonzales' competence and its relevance. While the state has insisted Gonzales' appeal is "record-based," the defense has countered that Gonzales' input is necessary considering the number of attorney involved in the case over the past 22 years.

Even as Horne makes Arizona's argument, the justices will also hear a similar case out of Ohio.

It's not clear when the Supreme Court might issue its ruling.

Arizona's most recent execution was in early August. Daniel Wayne Cook was put to death for strangling two people two death in 1987. It was the state's fifth execution of 2012, just two shy of the record seven executions in 1999.

If Arizona puts seven inmates to death this year, it could become the second-busiest death-penalty state after Texas.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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