High court spares mentally ill killer from execution
A split U.S. Supreme Court rules that a Texas death row inmate's illness prevents him from understanding why the state would kill him.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 today that Texas could not execute a man because his severe mental illness meant that he could not comprehend why he was being executed.
The ruling, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, spared the life of Scott Louis Panetti, 49, who murdered his former in-laws in 1992 after battling mental health problems for years.
Panetti has been on death row in Texas since 1995 and has been diagnosed as schizophrenic.
Both Panetti's lawyers and attorneys for the state said he was mentally disturbed. The question was whether he was sufficiently mentally ill that it would violate the constitutional bar against cruel and unusual punishment to execute him.
Panetti was hospitalized for mental illness 14 times in the decade before he shot to death his former in-laws as his estranged wife and her son watched.
During Panetti's trial, he exhibited bizarre behavior, wearing a purple cowboy suit and 10-gallon hat and subpoenaing President John F. Kennedy, Pope John Paul II and Jesus Christ as witnesses.
Panetti was ruled mentally competent to stand trial and mentally competent to be executed. Before today's ruling, four courts, including the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected pleas by Panetti's lawyers to spare his life.
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 of the murders of Amanda and Joe Alvarado.
At an oral argument in April, Texas' Solicitor Gen. Ted Cruz asserted that Panetti was capable of understanding the connection between his crime and his punishment and was exaggerating the extent of 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 that 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, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.
Writing for the majority, Kennedy rejected the position taken by Texas' solicitor general that Panetti's delusions were irrelevant to whether he could be executed so long as he was aware that Texas had presented a link between his crime and the punishment to be inflicted.
"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. "It is also inconsistent" with a 1986 Supreme Court decision, Ford vs. Wainwright, which ruled that a man could not be executed unless he understood the reason why.
Justice Kennedy acknowledged that it might be said that capital punishment is imposed "because it has the potential to make the offender recognize at last the gravity of his crime and allow the community as a whole, including the victim's surviving family and friends, to affirm its own judgment that the prisoner's culpability is so serious that the ultimate penalty must be sought and imposed."
However, Kennedy emphasized, "both the potential for this recognition and the objective of community vindication are called into question...if the prisoner's only awareness of the link between his crime and punishment is so distorted by mental illness that his awareness of the crime and punishment has little or no relation to the understanding shared by the community as a whole. A prisoner's awareness of the state's rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it."
Kennedy was joined by the court's four moderate and liberal justices — John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Justice Thomas dissented, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.
Thomas' opinion illustrated the deep divide on the high court in death penalty cases. He said that the court should not even have considered the case because Panetti did not meet the standards set by a 1996 law to have a second habeas corpus petition considered.
"Ignoring this clear statutory mandate, the court bends over backward to allow Panetti to bring" his mental illness claim "despite no evidence that his condition has worsened — or even changed — since 1995. Along the way, the court improperly refuses to defer" to a state court finding that Panetti was competent to be executed "even though Panetti had the opportunity to submit evidence and to respond to" a court-appointed experts' report on his condition.
In the majority opinion, Kennedy said that the state court in Texas had failed to provide the procedures to which Panetti was entitled under the Ford decision. The procedures the state provided Panetti "were so deficient that they cannot be reconciled with any reasonable interpretation of the Ford rule," which prohibits states from inflicting the death penalty upon insane prisoners.
Thursday's ruling marked the fourth time this term that the Supreme Court had overturned a decision by a Texas court or a lower federal allowing an execution to proceed.
The ruling was applauded by Wiercioch, who argued for Panetti at the high court. "The Supreme Court today reaffirms the wisdom of a legal principle nearly a thousand years old: that the execution of persons like Scott Panetti serves no purpose and offends our sense of decency and common humanity.
"Today the Supreme Court recognized that executing Scott Panetti would be a mindless, meaningless and miserable spectacle."