Ralph Blumenthal has, "Supreme Court Blocks Execution of Delusional Killer," in the New York Times.
Amplifying its ban against execution of the insane, a closely divided United States Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the death sentence of a delusional Texas murderer who insisted that he was being punished for preaching the Gospel.
In a rebuke to lower courts, the justices ruled 5 to 4 that the defendant, Scott Louis Panetti, had not been shown to have sufficient understanding of why he was to be put to death for gunning down his wife’s parents in 1992.
The court, acting on the last day of the 2006-7 term, declined to lay out a new standard for competency in capital cases. But it found that existing protections had not been afforded.
The justices referred the case back to a federal district court to re-evaluate Mr. Panetti’s claims of insanity. They said the district court, Texas courts and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, had all failed to assess those claims properly.
In a stinging dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas called the ruling “a half-baked holding that leaves the details of the insanity standard for the district court to work out.” He was joined in the minority by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Gregory W. Wiercioch, a staff lawyer for the Texas Defender Service who argued Mr. Panetti’s appeal before the justices in April, hailed the decision as “reaffirming and strengthening the grounds for proving incompetence” and said it “put the bite back into a standard that the Fifth Circuit had rendered essentially meaningless.”
Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said, “The Supreme Court has taken a much-needed step toward a more humane America.”
But the solicitor general of Texas, Ted Cruz, who had defended the sentence before the court, said the state would continue to seek Mr. Panetti’s execution.
“Unfortunately, today’s 5-to-4 decision will invite abuse from capital murderers, subject the courts to numerous false claims of incompetency and even further delay justice for the victims’ families,” Mr. Cruz said.
One Texas jury deadlocked on his competence to stand trial, but a second jury found him sane enough. Proclaiming himself healed by God as “a born-again April fool,” he refused further antipsychotic medication, dismissed his lawyers and won approval from the trial judge, Stephen B. Ables, to represent himself in court in 1995.
He appeared with a Tom Mix cowboy hat slung over his back, wearing purple western shirts and cowboy boots. He tried to subpoena Jesus and repeatedly ignored Judge Ables’s orders. But it was his often brutal cross-examination of his estranged wife, Sonja, forcing her to relive the murders in graphic detail, that clearly terrified the jurors, who convicted him in 90 minutes and sentenced him to death.
Afterward, Dr. F. E. Seale, a psychiatrist who treated Mr. Panetti in 1986, voiced revulsion.
“I thought to myself, ‘My God, how in the world can our legal system allow an insane man to defend himself?’ ” Dr. Seale said. “ ‘How can this be just?’ ”
Henry Weinstein has, "High court spares mentally ill killer," in the Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Tribune also carries a version of this report.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to a federal judge in Austin to reassess Panetti's mental health in light of the decision issued Thursday. Ted Cruz, the Texas solicitor general, said he would continue to press for Panetti's execution.
The case presented a particularly thorny question because evidence was introduced that Panetti was aware that he had killed Amanda and Joe Alvarado. But expert testimony was presented that Panetti, known as "the preacher" on Texas' death row, believed he was going to be executed because Texas was conspiring with the devil to block him from preaching the Gospel to fellow inmates — not because he murdered the Alvarados.
At an oral argument in April, Cruz asserted that Panetti was capable of understanding the connection between his crime and his punishment and was exaggerating his delusions.
But defense lawyer Gregory Wiercioch, of the Texas Defender Service, told the justices that Panetti did not rationally understand why he was to be executed. Consequently, Wiercioch said, killing Panetti would serve no legitimate retributive purpose.
That view eventually prevailed. The high court majority ruled that the 5th Circuit's standard for determining incompetence was too restrictive to provide Panetti the protections he was entitled to under the 8th Amendment.
Writing for the majority, Kennedy rejected the position taken by Cruz and the 5th Circuit, that Panetti's delusions were irrelevant as long as he was aware that Texas had made a link between his crime and the punishment.
"This test ignores the possibility that even if such awareness exists, gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put that awareness in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no purpose," Kennedy wrote.
Kennedy also found that execution would be inconsistent with a 1986 Supreme Court decision, Ford vs. Wainwright, which ruled that a person may not be put to death if he cannot perceive "the connection between his crime and his punishment."
Charles Lane has, "Execution of Schizophrenic Killer Blocked byHigh Court," in the Washington Post.
The court ruled in 1976 that it is unconstitutional to execute an insane prisoner, but since then no death-row inmate has succeeded in overturning a death sentence based on mental illness. Yesterday's ruling removed one obstacle to such claims: the fact that a prisoner's disorder might not become evident until after the deadline for raising constitutional appeals has passed.
By a vote of 5 to 4, the court said the law does not bar consideration of convicted murderer Scott Louis Panetti's claim that he is too delusional to understand the state's reasons for planning to put him to death, even though Panetti waited until his execution date was set in 2003 to raise it.
Requiring prisoners to meet the deadline would effectively require every inmate to lodge an "unripe" insanity claim just to preserve the option, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.
The court also held that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, the New Orleans-based federal court that regulates capital punishment in Texas, used an overly restrictive definition of mental incompetence when it rejected Panetti's claim. Panetti, who has a history of hospitalizations, says he knows that the state says it wants him to die for the 1992 murder of his mother-in-law and father-in-law. But he insists that the real reason is to prevent him from preaching the gospel.
Laura Parker of USA Today has, "Court stays execution of mentally ill prisoner."
The ruling is not expected to have wider implications for mentally ill death row inmates, legal experts said, because it focused narrowly on Panetti's severe mental illness.
"Many people on death row have degrees of mental illness and this does not protect them," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, a watchdog group that opposes capital punishment. He added that the decision signals a willingness by the high court to "continue the dialogue about whether the death penalty is being administered fairly and against the right people."
The ruling marked the fourth time this year the Supreme Court has reversed a Texas death penalty case. The other cases involved challenges to a Texas law that did not allow consideration of mitigating evidence such as mental illness.
The court ordered a federal judge to reconsider Panetti's mental health.
Warren Richey of the Christian Science Monitor has, "Court strikes down death sentence for mentally ill man."
The majority justices said that Mr. Panetti has had a long history of mental illness, and it was unclear whether he lacked a rational understanding of the true purpose of his death sentence. The high court declined to establish a new standard for mental competence before an individual may be subject to capital punishment. Instead, the court sent the case back to the lower courts in Texas to evaluate Panetti's claims of incompetence in more detail.
"Expert evidence may clarify the extent to which severe delusions may render a subject's perception of reality so distorted that he should be deemed incompetent," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority justices.
The Constitution's Eighth Amendment bars cruel and unusual punishments. The high court in recent years has set higher constitutional standards for the execution of juveniles and those diagnosed with mental retardation.
Prior to Thursday's ruling, the Eighth Amendment standard enforced by the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals for those with mental illness had been whether the condemned prisoner had an awareness that he or she had committed a crime and that the prisoner was being punished for that crime with a death sentence.
Lawyers for Panetti argued that the awareness standard was too low. They said that rather than mere awareness, a death-row inmate with mental illness should be capable of having a rational understanding of the reason for the execution. Severe delusions about the reasons for a death sentence undermine the retributive purpose of capital punishment, they said.
Gary Fields of the Wall Street Journal has, "Supreme Court Bars a Texas Execution."
The court has long held that insane defendants could not be executed. But that 1986 ruling, Ford v. Wainwright, didn't define what insanity is or how states should determine that. Instead, the court left it to the states to create their own standards for the level of competency a defendant must reach to be executed. Yesterday's ruling strikes down the Texas standard and could affect a small number of cases in other states where defendants are arguing their mental illnesses make it difficult to understand why they are being put to death.
In the opinion, Justice Kennedy said "gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put an awareness of a link between a crime and its punishment in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose."
While Thursday's ruling continues a trend in which the Court has limited the imposition of the death penalty on defendants with limited intellectual capacity or maturity levels, it didn't address the rising issue of the influx of mentally ill defendants in the criminal justice system and on death row. In the opinion, Justice Kennedy stated as much, saying: "we do not attempt to set down a rule governing all competency determinations."
Richard Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the opinion's importance is that though restrictive, it follows the 2002 Supreme Court ruling that concluded it was unconstitutional to put a mentally retarded defendant to death and a 2004 opinion in which the court ruled that defendants who were under 18 at the time of their crime should be exempt from capital punishment as well.
"We never expected that Panetti would address the larger issue of whether mentally ill people can be executed. That issue remains for another day," said David Elliott, of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
An expansive pronouncement on mental illness and the death penalty would have implications for hundreds of inmates. There are more than 3,300 people awaiting execution in the U.S. according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group critical of how the death penalty is administered. Various organizations conservatively estimate that at least 10% of them suffer from serious mental illness. In all, about 17% of the nation's prisoners have a diagnosis of serious mental
Derrick Nunnally in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has, "Hayward native's execution blocked."
In Jump River, Jack and Yvonne Panetti said they were relieved when the news broke Thursday morning about their son's reprieve from Texas death row.
"He never belonged there," Jack Panetti said. "He should've been in a mental institution getting help."
Panetti, 49, had been hospitalized 14 times for mental illness before the 1992 slayings, but the Texas trial court deemed him competent to defend himself and sane enough to get the death penalty. As quoted by Kennedy in Thursday's decision, the standby lawyer appointed to Panetti's 1995 trial described his conduct as "bizarre," "scary" and "trance-like," and post-conviction mental evaluations and interviews have yielded similar descriptions of Panetti's state.
Yet the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the trial court's ruling that Panetti could lawfully be executed, largely because he could say that he had been sentenced to die for committing murder, no matter whether he believed the words.
Andrea Keilen, executive director of the Texas Defender Service agency that took Panetti's case to the Supreme Court, observed Thursday that the 5th Circuit has never found anyone too mentally disturbed to be executed. She hailed the high court's ruling for laying down a national guideline to replace previous regional inconsistencies. She said that "no one could ever meet" the now-rejected threshold for insanity that the Texas courts and 5th Circuit had set for Panetti.
"If someone like Scott Panetti is not too mentally ill to be executed," Keilen said, "then there isn't anyone who is."
In a 1999 court affidavit, even Panetti's former wife, Sonja Alvarado, whose parents he killed, wrote, "I now know that Scott is mentally ill and should not be put to death."