Legal News
Court Still Clarifying Rules for Executing Mentally Ill
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 10 page 20-20

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 flawed."

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 carried out.

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] ▪

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