U.S. Supreme Court lifts Arizona prisoner's stay of execution

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX -- Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne successfully argued a case in front of the United States Supreme Court that will lift a stay of execution for convicted murderer Ernest Valencia Gonzales.

Gonzales was sentenced to death in 1992 for the 1990 murder of Darrel Wagner. Wagner was murdered in front of his wife Deborah.

“A burglar was in the house. A father, mother, and 10-year-old child come home. The next thing the mother knows the burglar is on top of the husband stabbing him repeatedly,” said Horne.

While Gonzales was on death row, his mental state deteriorated and a years-long court battle began to appeal his death sentence.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Gonzales an indefinite stay of execution because he was no longer able to assist his attorney on his case due to his mental incompetency.

“The mother who watched this is beside herself with upset and depression and outrage because she’s being victimized a second time by the court system,” said Horne.

Horne took the case to the United States Supreme Court to lift the indefinite stay of execution. He presented his oral argument in October. This week, the court issued a ruling in Ryan v. Gonzales.

In a unanimous opinion, the court reversed the Ninth Circuit ruling and found that limits can be placed on long delays imposed by Federal courts on the death penalty appeals process.

“This is an important victory,” Horne said in a press release. “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.”

Horne says the ruling means that the appeals process across the country could be shorter, because lengthy stays will no longer be granted for incompetency in Federal Habeas Corpus proceedings, even if the prisoner is unable to aid his attorney.

A Federal Habeas proceeding is the last avenue for a convicted and sentenced death row inmate who has exhausted the appeals process. The Supreme Court agreed with Horne’s argument that because the determination in most Federal Habeas proceedings is made on the record, and not in a hearing, the attorney does not need the client’s assistance.  Instead, the attorney can simply read the record from the previous trials.

“I think this is a very important victory in getting the federal government to stop interfering with the states implementing their laws,” said Horne.

Horne says Gonzales’ case will now head back to the District Court, which will likely execute a warrant for his execution.