WASHINGTON — In a ruling that gives a glimmer of hope to a California murderer facing execution, the Supreme Court said Monday that an Arizona death row inmate is entitled to one hearing before a federal judge to argue that his life should be spared because he is insane.
The 7-2 decision marks one of the rare times the high court has sided with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a death penalty case.
The issue of the death penalty and insanity has gained wide attention recently because of the case of Horace Kelly, the 38-year-old triple murderer who faces execution at San Quentin.
Twelve years ago, the Supreme Court barred the states from executing an insane person on the grounds that it would be cruel and unusual punishment.
Lawyers for Kelly said he should be spared because he is insane, but last week, a jury in Marin County disagreed. By a 9-3 vote, jurors agreed with prosecutors who said that the condemned man understood his crimes and the reason for his punishment. He faces a June 8 execution.
Monday's high court decision, however, could give Kelly's lawyers another chance to make the same claim of insanity before a federal judge.
Richard Mazer, Kelly's lawyer in San Francisco, did not return a call seeking comment.
State prosecutors said they were uncertain what will happen next because of procedural differences between Kelly's case and the Arizona case decided by the high court.
Most death row inmates have appeals heard over several years in federal court before they face an execution. However, Kelly was barred from going into federal court because his lawyers missed the new one-year deadline for filing a federal appeal.
Congress established the one-year deadline in 1996 as part of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a measure designed to limit lengthy appeals in federal court.
"We are not sure what this will mean for Kelly, since he never did a first round of habeas [appeals in federal court]," said Dane Gillette, the California state prosecutor who oversees death penalty cases.
The Arizona inmate, Ramon Martinez-Villareal, faced execution for killing two people in 1982. He said in a 1993 federal appeal that he had gone insane while on death row, but a federal judge refused to hear the case then because Martinez-Villareal was not facing execution.
Last spring, when he did face an imminent execution, his lawyers raised the same issue before a federal judge in Phoenix. This time, the judge refused to hear the case because it was too late. He cited the 1996 law that generally bars inmates from reopening their cases in federal court once their appeals have been denied.
The 9th Circuit intervened and blocked the execution of Martinez-Villareal until his insanity case could be heard.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, speaking for the court, endorsed the 9th Circuit's ruling and faulted the federal judge who refused to hear the case.
It would be a "perverse" result, he said, to interpret federal law as refusing claims of insanity first because they are premature and then later because they come too late.
"We hold that the Court of Appeals was correct in deciding that [Martinez-Villareal] was entitled to a hearing on the merits of his [insanity] claims in the [federal] District Court," Rehnquist said in Stewart vs. Martinez-Villareal.
In a footnote, Rehnquist said the ruling did not involve a situation in which an inmate did not raise an insanity claim until all his federal appeals had been heard.
The case of Kelly differs further because none of his appeals have been heard in a federal court.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the federal law absolutely forbids new appeals being considered after an initial federal habeas corpus appeal has been rejected.