By Ed Runyan
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled Tuesday that death-row inmate Sean Carter of Trumbull County cannot indefinitely prevent his execution based on his claim that he is mentally impaired.
It is believed to be the first time a Trumbull County criminal defendant’s case has reached oral-argument stage before the nation’s top court.
Carter, 33, was convicted of raping and murdering his adoptive grandmother, Veader Prince, 68, on Sept. 13, 1997, in her Southington home.
Carter, who was 18 at the time of the murder, broke into Prince’s home, then beat her, raped her and stabbed her 18 times with a kitchen knife. Prince’s daughter and son found her body in the basement the next day. Carter later confessed the murder.
A Trumbull County jury convicted Carter of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, rape and criminal trespass, and he received the death penalty. The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the convictions and sentence in 2000.
But in 2002, Carter sought relief from the federal courts under what is called a habeas petition, arguing that he had received ineffective assistance from his attorneys.
In 2005, Carter and his lawyers amended his petition, seeking a ruling that the proceedings should be put on hold because of his mental impairment.
After three evaluations, psychological experts testified that Carter had schizophrenia and other mental limitations, and the Sixth Circuit federal court in Cincinnati said Carter’s habeas corpus proceedings should be put on hold until Carter is competent to assist with his defense.
But the Ohio Attorney General’s office appealed the federal court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the decision of the 6th Circuit court assigned Carter a right to be competent to assist his attorneys — a right not shared by any other federal circuit court.
The 6th Circuit’s decision would “improperly bring Ohio’s [death penalty] litigation to a halt” by allowing a prisoner to “make a minimal showing of [mental impairment], demand a hearing, and secure an indefinite stay of his habeas corpus proceedings,” the attorney general said.
Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins on Tuesday thanked the Ohio Attorney General’s office for appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Today’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,” Watkins said.
Watkins prosecuted the case in 1998, but the attorney general’s office defends such cases in the federal courts.
The top court’s decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said federal law “does not recognize a statutory right to competence in federal habeas proceedings.” It added that the 6th Circuit court incorrectly relied on federal law pertaining to federal inmates — instead of state inmates — when it put a halt to Carter’s proceedings.
Carter does not have an execution date at this time, but Watkins will seek one from the Ohio Supreme Court once Carter’s federal habeas corpus proceedings are complete.
According to Tuesday’s decision, Carter’s case returns to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District Court of Appeals for further proceedings on Carter’s claim that he received ineffective assistance from his attorneys.