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Legal News
Court Overturns Death Sentence, but Fails to Clarify Standards
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 14 page 17-17

By a one-vote margin the U.S. Supreme Court last month blocked the execution of a convicted killer with severe mental illness, but declined to clarify the standards that should apply when courts assess whether an inmate's mental illness is severe enough to negate a death penalty.

Legal experts, death-penalty opponents, and forensic psychiatrists had hoped the justices would add specifics to its 1986 decision in Ford v. Wainwright, which barred execution of severely mentally ill prisoners. In that ruling the Court's majority said that carrying out the death penalty on a mentally ill prisoner violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. The standard set in Ford was that an execution could not proceed if the prisoner was unaware of his impending execution and of the reason for it.

In the case Panetti v. Quarterman, Scott Panetti, was aware that he was going to be executed and that it was because in 1992 he killed his wife's parents, thus Texas claimed that under the Ford decision he was eligible to be executed.

Panetti has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, however, and has been hospitalized several times because of his mental illness, including frequent religious and other delusions. He maintains that he is facing the death penalty because of a conspiracy in which certain forces have colluded to stop him from preaching the gospel. "The devil has been trying to rub me out to keep me from preaching," Panetti said in a November 2006 prison interview.

In its June ruling the Court said that all of the lower courts that heard the case had failed to follow the minimal procedures laid out in Ford. The federal appeals court for the fifth circuit, whose ruling is the one the Supreme Court addressed, ruled that Panetti had some, if minimal, understanding of why he was facing execution, and that this was sufficient to allow the death penalty to be carried out. The Supreme Court, however, said that court's procedures in assessing Panetti's insanity claim were "so deficient that they cannot be reconciled with any reasonable interpretation of the 'Ford rule.'"

But instead of commuting Panetti's death sentence, the Supreme Court sent it back a federal district court in Texas for a rehearing on the insanity claim.

In an amicus brief filed in support of Pannetti's appeal, APA, along with the American Psychological Association and National Alliance on Mental Illness, emphasized that when a convicted 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."

Justice Anthony Kennedy was the swing vote in this case, joining the Court's more liberal justices in the 5-4 decision to send the case back to the lower court for rehearing.

The Texas prosecutor in the case has stated after the Court's ruling that he will continue to press for Panetti's execution. ▪

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