Friday, 13 April 2007

A Death Sentence Is Brought to Mind

A Death Sentence Is Broght to Mind

That's the title of a must-read article in the ABA Journal this month on the Scott Panetti case, which will be argued in the U.S. Supreme Court next Wednesday. LINK

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to execute somebody who is clear­ly insane. But the court has never actually said what constitutes insanity for the purpose of determining whether somebody is competent to be executed.

Until now. The court will hear arguments Wednesday over whether a mentally ill Texas death row inmate should be executed for gunning down his in-laws in 1992 in front of his estranged wife and their 3-year-old daughter. Panetti v. Quarterman, No. 06-6407.

The inmate, 48-year-old Scott Panetti, apparently understands on some level that the state intends to execute him for the murder of his wife’s parents, according to mental health experts who evaluated him. But he al­so apparently suffers from the delusional belief that he’s being executed as part of a grand conspiracy by the “forces of evil” to prevent him from preaching the gos­pel.

Experts say the case could help clarify the criteria to be used for assessing whether a mentally ill death row inmate is competent for execution.

But observers on either side of the issue say it also raises the possibility that the court could go too far in one direction. If the court holds that a defendant need only be aware that he or she is about to be executed and why the state says it wants the execution, even a profoundly mentally ill death row inmate might not be spared the ultimate punishment.


In an amicus brief filed Feb. 26 on Panetti’s behalf, the ABA asserts that to be competent for execution an offender must not only be aware of the nature and purpose of his pun­ishment, but also must appreciate its personal application in the offender’s own case.

“If the offender simply cannot understand the true reason a capital sentence is to be carried out against him, his execution would be inconsistent with the constitutional prin­ciples established in Ford,” wrote New York City lawyer and brief co-author Ronald J. Tabak, a member of the ABA Task Force on Mental Disability and the Death Penalty.

Other organizations, including Am­­nesty International and the National Al­liance for the Mentally Ill, say the “mere awareness” test the 5th Cir­cuit applied is not a meaningful requirement for determining whether to ex­ecute somebody who is severely mentally ill. “The mere-awareness test makes no sense when applied to a prisoner who is plagued by delusions of grand persecution, as severely mentally ill, schizophrenic individuals like Mr. Ford and Mr. Panetti very often are,” the alliance said in a brief urging the court to hear Panetti’s appeal.

Georgetown’s Rothstein hopes the court sides with Panetti, although he concedes that such an outcome could lead to further complications. For example, what about the case of a defendant who believes his death isn’t permanent? What if a defendant is aware he will be executed but thinks he will come back to earth?

“It could be the first step down a potentially slippery slope,” he says.

More on the Panetti case is here.

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