High Court Blocks Mentally Ill Inmate's Execution

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 5-4 in favor of a mentally ill murderer who does not understand the reason for his execution. The majority said knowing the government's stated reason for executing someone is not the same as understanding the government's rationale. The justices said a lower court should have considered that distinction.

The case concerns Scott Panetti, a 49-year-old paranoid schizophrenic. Fifteen years ago, Panetti shot his in-laws in front of his wife and daughter. He represented himself at trial, wearing a purple cowboy outfit and questioning his alter ego, Serge, on the witness stand. A jury convicted him and sentenced him to death.

Panetti knows the state says it is punishing him for the murders, but he believes the state really wants to execute him to stop him from preaching the word of God.

His lawyer, Andrea Keilen, says, "He thinks that really, at the heart of this, is Satan's continued assassination attempts on his life and that his execution would be Satan's victory."

Keilen is executive director of Texas Defender Service.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the death penalty is meant to serve a retributive purpose, and that purpose is not served "if the prisoner's mental state is so distorted by a mental illness that his awareness of the crime and punishment has little or no relation to the understanding of those concepts shared by the community as a whole."

Kennedy wrote, "A prisoner's awareness of the State's rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it."

"The court," Keilen says, "is really saying that just being able to recite what the state of Texas intends to execute him for is not enough, that the courts have to consider people's long-term and severe mental illness, and whether that mental illness has caused an individual to have such severe and extreme delusions that keep them from meaningfully appreciating the connection between their crime and their punishment."

Scope of Ruling Debated

Keilen believes this ruling will affect a very small number of inmates.

The Texas attorney general's office suggested otherwise. Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz said in a statement that the decision "will invite abuse from capital murderers, subject the courts to numerous false claims of incompetency, and even further delay justice for the victims' families."

Kent Scheidegger is legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. He wrote a friend of the court brief supporting the state's position. He thinks this ruling does not dramatically change the landscape for death penalty cases.

"It will produce litigation in a large number of cases," Scheidegger says, "but I think that very few will actually ultimately succeed in precluding execution this way ... because it doesn't appear to substantially broaden the standard."

Scheidegger believes the distinction between knowing and understanding the state's reason for an execution is too vague to be workable.

The four dissenting justices call the majority's standard "half-baked." Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the court's conservative block, accused the majority of "settling upon a preferred outcome without resort to the law." Thomas would have barred Panetti from bringing this appeal on procedural grounds.

The case is just the latest of many 5-4 decisions from the Supreme Court. The difference here is that Kennedy joined the court's more liberal justices — Ginsburg, Stevens, Souter and Breyer — leaving the conservative block of Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts in the minority.

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