A federal district judge who has restarted long-dormant proceedings in the federal death penalty appeal of a Nevada County man convicted in 1997 of the deaths of a Nevada County couple now wants to hear arguments by attorneys on a recent U. S. Supreme Court decision which may pave the way for a trial on the merits of Joe Louis Dansby's claim of incompetence.
U. S. District Judge Susan Hickey issued orders in September which set a July 24, 2013, evidentiary hearing date to determine whether Dansby, 60, is competent to continue and to assist in his defense. Under those rulings, Dansby has been ordered to testify at the July hearing, but only to the extent that his testimony involves his ability to understand and proceed in his defense.
In asserting his claim, Dansby's attorneys have succeeded in having trial of the merits of that claim “stayed,” or delayed, until it is determined that Dansby is competent not only to understand the proceedings against him, but also to participate in his own defense. Hickey now raises the question of whether a January, 2013, decision by the U. S. Supreme Court precludes that ability.
Addressing the case of Ryan v. Gonzales, 133 S. Ct. 696 (2013), Hickey notes that the Court's opinion by Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas addresses “...the issued of (1) whether a habeas petitioner is entitled to competency in his habeas proceedings, and (2) whether the United States District Court may stay a federal habeas proceeding based on the petitioner's incompetence.
“The Court finds this precedent likely governs the issues presented in the instant case relating to Petitioner's competency and the upcoming evidentiary hearing,” Hickey wrote.
As a result, Hickey has ordered attorneys on both sides to address briefs to the Court on the applicability of Ryan v. Gonzales to Dansby's case; whether there are any distinguishing factors in Dansby's case that precludes Ryan v. Gonzales from being applied to his appeal; and, explanations as to aspects of Ryan v. Gonzales which might be helpful to Hickey in further ruling on Dansby's case.
In the opinion for the Court, Justice Thomas noted that two federal statutes applied in Ryan and a companion case argued before the Court provided no basis for habeas corpus rights to a petitioner who is adjudged incompetent, nor do they apply where state court offenses have been appealed in the federal courts.
“For purposes of resolving these cases, it is sufficient to address the outer limits of the district court's discretion to issue stays; it is unnecessary to determine the precise contours of that discretion,” Thomas wrote.
Hickey has set an April 29 deadline for U.S. Public Defender Scott Braden's briefing and a May 29 deadline for the state's response, and a June 19 deadline for Braden's reply prior to the July 24 evidentiary hearing.
Dansby's attorneys have argued that he is not eligible for execution under the death penalty in Arkansas because he is a mentally retarded person under the definition of a 2002 U. S. Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. Dansby was sentenced to death in Miller County on a change of venue from Nevada County after a three week trial for the 1992 murders of a Nevada County couple.