When is someone incompetent to be executed? That's the question that will be front and center Wednesday in the U.S. Supreme Court when it hears the case of Scott Panetti.
The Houston Chronicle today has, "What if killer can't grasp meaning of execution?"
In the decade before he shot his in-laws dead in the Texas Hill Country, Scott Panetti was hospitalized 14 times for schizophrenia and psychotic delusions. He heard voices and fought with various personalities in his fractured mind. He once planted his furniture in the ground and watered it, believing it to be possessed.
Yet a Gillespie County jury deemed him fit to stand trial for capital murder in the 1992 slayings, and a judge allowed him to represent himself despite objections from even the prosecutor. Dressed in a purple cowboy outfit with a hat dangling from a string around his neck, Panetti flipped a coin to choose his jurors, ranted incomprehensibly and tried to subpoena everyone from President Kennedy to Jesus Christ.
The jury rejected his insanity defense and sentenced him to death.
Every mental health expert to evaluate Panetti agrees he is mentally ill. But on Wednesday, his lawyer, Keith Hampton of Austin, will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to answer a more difficult question: Is Panetti now so insane that he should be spared execution because he cannot grasp the fact that his punishment is the result of his crime?
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has followed the case closely over the years since Panetti is from the area. Meg Kissinger has, "Is Wisconsin native too mentally ill to execute?"
"If they can kill this guy, they can kill anyone," said Michael Gonring, a Milwaukee lawyer who filed a petition in the case on behalf of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and plans to be at Wednesday's hearing.
The court will hear 30-minute arguments from both sides. Panetti will not be present. The court likely will decide before the end of its session in late June.
Mental health lawyers are looking to the Supreme Court to clarify its definition of what makes an inmate competent to be executed within the bounds of the Constitution. The court ruled in 1986, in Ford vs. Wainwright, that executing a person who is severely mentally impaired violates the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. But the decision did not provide a test of what is constitutionally acceptable as competent for execution.
In seeking to allow Panetti's execution, Texas is pointing to a 1994 decision by the 5th District Court of Appeals that allowed the execution of Harold Amos Barnard Jr. Like Panetti, Barnard was schizophrenic and thought he was being put to death as part of a delusional plot by the government. Years later, the same appeals court used Barnard's case as precedent in denying an appeal by Panetti's lawyers to spare him from execution.
The latest version of a Texas AP report, via the La Crosse Tribune is here.
State lawyers want the justices to adopt a clear test of mental illness that would make someone ineligible for the death penalty only if he lacks the capacity to recognize his punishment is the result of a capital murder conviction and that he will die.
At a federal evidentiary hearing, defense medical experts said while he understood he was to be executed, he did not connect the murders as the reason for the punishment.
Panetti, a former ranch hand and native of Hayward, Wis., had a history of mental problems before his conviction, recording 14 hospital stays over 11 years.