The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the death sentences of three convicted
Texas murderers last month because juries deciding whether they should be
executed were not given the opportunity to hear about certain potentially
mitigating factors, including charges that one of the convicts was seriously
abused as a child and suffered from a mental illness.
The 5-4 ruling, which applied to all three appeals, showed that justices
are nowhere near a consensus on death-penalty issues, with the court's more
conservative justices voting to uphold the death sentences, and"
swing" voter Justice Anthony Kennedy voting with the more liberal
justices to overturn the sentences in light of the judge-imposed restrictions
on introducing mitigating evidence. (The three cases were Smith v.
Texas, 05-11304; Brewer v. Quarterman, 05-11287; and
Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman, 05-11284.)
The state can retry the men or allow their death sentences to convert to
life sentences with the possibility of parole.
The court's majority ruled that the appeals court judges' decisions to
allow the death penalty to proceed misinterpreted an earlier Supreme Court
ruling that said jurors are entitled to hear possibly mitigating evidence when
deciding whether to sentence someone to death.
One of the three men whose sentences was appealed was Brent Brewer, who
stabbed a man to death in a 1990 robbery in Amarillo. He wanted the jury to
hear evidence about the abuse he endured when he was a child and his current
mental illness. He hoped that this information would sway the jurors to decide
that these factors contributed to his violent acts and thus sentence him to a
life sentence instead of a death sentence.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority, "When the jury is
not permitted to give meaningful effect or a 'reasoned moral response' to a
defendant's mitigating evidence.. .the sentencing process is fatally
Approximately 40 other Texas inmates awaiting execution could be affected
by the Supreme Court's ruling.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry submitted amicus
briefs in Brewer and in Abdul-Kabir.
Still pending before the high court is another Texas death-penalty case
with substantial implications for criminals with a mental illness. The
justices have heard arguments in the case, Panetti v. Quarterman, in
which Texas plans to execute convicted murderer Scott Panetti, even though he
has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has had 14 psychiatric hospital
stays. The case hinges on the extent to which he understands that he is going
to be executed and why. The outcome is expected to clarify the Court's 1986
decision in Ford v. Wainwright, in which it ruled that executing
mentally ill inmates violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual
punishment. The test the ruling imposed in that case was whether the prisoner
was aware of his impending execution and of the reason for it.
One of the key issues in Panetti is whether being aware of the
acts one committed equates with mental competence. Panetti is aware of why he
is facing execution, namely, that he killed his wife's parents, but suffers
from religiously based delusions in which he maintains that the people
planning to put him to death are part of a conspiracy to prevent him from
preaching the gospel.
The Supreme Court will thus have to refine its ruling in Ford v.
Wainwright to decide whether profound mental illness is not enough to
keep someone who knows he or she is to be executed from having that sentence
APA, along with the American Psychological Association and National
Alliance on Mental Illness, have filed an amicus curiae brief urging the Court
to rule against Texas and order Panetti's death sentence commuted. Among the
arguments put forth in the brief is, "Where the prisoner cannot
appreciate the reason, his execution cannot further the retributive process of
the death penalty any more than if the prisoner, as in Ford, suffers
delusions that he can never be executed at all." People with illnesses
of the severity of Panetti's, the brief emphasizes, "cannot rationally
understand the reasons for their execution...[as they] frequently suffer from
bizarre delusions that disrupt their understanding of reality."
[Panetti v. Quarterman, No. 06-6407] ▪