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January 5, 2007

Supreme Court grants cert on capital mental illness issue

As detailed here at SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court today granted cert on seven cases.  One of the group is a Texas capital case.  Here is Lyle Denniston's description:

Among the newly granted cases is a Texas death row case, testing whether it is unconstitutional to execute an individual who is factually aware of the reason he faces execution, but because of mental illness has a delusion about the state's actual reason for putting him to death.  It is Panetti v. Quarterman (06-6407).  Doctors who examined Scott Louis Panetti found him to have a mental disorder, although they concluded that he knew he was to be executed after killing his wife's parents.  But the doctors concluded that Panetti had a personal belief that he was going to be put to death by the state because he was "preaching the gospel" and that the "forces of evil" were set against him.  His lawyers claim that he is too mentally unstable to be executed without violating the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The appeal is supported by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. It and Panetti's petition argue that the lower court decision in his case runs against the Supreme Court's 1986 decision in Ford v. Wainwright barring the execution of the mentally ill.

Panetti is an interesting grant given that, in the wake of Atkins and its prohibition on executing persons with mental retardation, many anti-death-penalty groups have been arguing for a prohibition on executing persons with serious mental illness.  Since the facts in Panetti seem somewhat quirky, I would guess that the cert grant is designed to allow the Supreme Court to explore more generally the issue of applying the death penalty to persons with mental illnesses.

UPDATE:  Linda Greenhouse has this strong coverage of the Panetti grant in this New York Times article.

January 5, 2007 at 06:15 PM | Permalink


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» Panetti Case to Get Supreme Court Review - UPDATED from StandDown Texas Project
No one disputes that Scott Panetti has severe mental illness. He had a decade long history of hospitalizations before killing his former parents-in-law in 1992. Declared competent to stand trial, he was allowed to represent himself in his own capital [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 5, 2007 11:06:43 PM


Anyway to find out the cert. vote? Would be interesting to se how Kennedy voted.

Posted by: Bernie Kleinman | Jan 6, 2007 8:57:21 AM

This is a truly scary scenario. Panetti was diagnosed and hospitalized 14 times with schizophrenia before the homicides. At his trial, not only did the jury find him competent, but the judge allowed himself to be pro se! Then, the 5th Cir. finds no errors! We can partially ascribe this to the incredibly backward nature of "Texas justice" [remember they also had the AG as a S. Ct. justice]; but it is unbelievable that this case got this far. As to the specific issue, it would seem that the 5th Cir. went out of its way to misunderstand the Atkins decision to send this guy to the gallows. If Panetti "qualifies" as a death penalty candidate, with his intense, and well-documented mental illness, then what defendant would ever not qualify?

Posted by: Bernie Kleinman | Jan 6, 2007 11:54:25 AM

Bernie, your criticism of the Fifth Circuit is unjustified. It looks like it did a pretty good job of applying the existing law. Moreover, it did not really deal with what Texas did, rather, it was reviewing de novo (for law) and for clear error (the facts), the findings of the Federal District Court.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 6, 2007 1:24:20 PM

The Texas Supreme Court, of which Alberto Gonzales was a Justice, has no jurisdiction in these cases. They are reviewed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jan 6, 2007 2:48:14 PM

Hi. (I'm an assistant professor of psychiatry).

Though this covers old ground, the obvious problem with being saying his psychosis makes him incompetent to be executed is that he is then sent for treatment-- to treat his psychosis, so that he can then be executed.

From the psychiatric side, this puts doctors in a fix: is it ethical to treat if you know the outcome is death? The answer is probably not.

Doctors are using this "fix" to argue for a categorical exemption to execution for the mentally ill. But the actual solution is to take doctors out of the equation altogether. Justice is determined and served by a system that takes years, has numerous checks and protections, and is much better able to determine these matters than doctors-- who, with no disrespect to them, are by their very natures unable to weigh justice because they (must) treat each individual with no regard to his social context, without comparing his worth against society.

For those who are interested in the psychiatric perspective:

Posted by: TheLastPsychiatrist | Jan 29, 2007 9:12:10 AM

mental health has never been given the weight it should with regards to sentencing in death penalty cases.

Then again Texas isn't a particularly forgiving place.

Posted by: Texas Law | Apr 12, 2008 9:17:41 PM

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