The U.S. Supreme Court did more Thursday than block the execution of one mentally ill death row inmate in Texas. Panetti v. Quarterman, No. 06-6407. It also gave other mentally ill death row inmates potential new grounds to challenge their sentences, legal experts say.
In Panetti, the court held 5-4 that Scott Panetti, who was sentenced to die for the 1992 murders of his in-laws, had not been afforded a meaningful opportunity in the Texas state courts to show he was too mentally ill to be executed.
In the process, the court also held that the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had used an overly restrictive standard of incompetency last year when it cleared the way for Panetti’s execution.
The decision was the fourth this term in which the high court slapped down capital cases from Texas or the 5th Circuit. In April, the court reversed three cases involving jury instructions during sentencing.
We find the state court failed to provide the procedures to which petitioner was entitled under the Constitution; and we determine that the federal appellate court employed an improperly restrictive test when it considered petitioner’s claim of incompetency on the merits,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, which included Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
The 5th Circuit had held that a mentally ill death row inmate is competent for execution as long as he is aware he is to be put to death and why, even if he thinks the state’s stated reason for doing so is a sham.