The Supreme Court says federal judges cannot indefinitely delay a death row inmate's federal appeals to see if the convict can become mentally competent enough to help his lawyer.
The high court unanimously ruled Tuesday against Arizona death row inmate Ernest Gonzales and Ohio death row inmate Sean Carter.
"This is an important victory," Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said. "The unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court will result in swifter justice being carried out."
Inmates appealing state death sentences to federal court have a right to a lawyer. But the courts never said whether the inmates have to be mentally competent enough to help their lawyers with their federal appeals. Gonzales and Carter wanted the high court to say that federal judges have discretion to hold up proceedings indefinitely until the inmates are ready.
Justice Clarence Thomas says "at some point, the state must be allowed to defend its judgment of conviction."
In the Arizona case, Gonzales, a convicted burglar on probation, repeatedly stabbed Darrel Wagner in front of his wife, Deborah, during a burglary of the Wagners' home in Phoenix in 1990.
Gonzales was burglarizing the Wagners' home a when they returned from a dinner celebrating Darrel Wagner's recent promotion. Deborah Wagner pleaded with Gonzales to stop stabbing her husband, but he would not.
When she jumped on his back to try to get him to stop, Gonzales stabbed her as well. She was in intensive care, but survived. Her husband died of the multiple stab wounds. Gonzales was on probation at the time of the crime, had a long record of prior crimes and was sentenced to death.
Deborah Wagner was distressed to be victimized a second time, as the Federal Courts delayed her ability to see justice done, for 14 years, Horne said.
The Ninth Circuit imposed an indefinite stay on the grounds that the prisoner's mental state had deteriorated and he could no longer provide help to his lawyers.
Horne appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued that victims' families have a right to see justice done in a reasonable period of time.
Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.