Justices Weigh Mental Illness, Death Penalty

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The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up a complex question: What level of mental illness is enough to spare someone the death penalty? The case in question involves a man who killed two people in Texas after a history of mental illness.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

The U.S. Supreme Court today takes up a question at the heart of the criminal justice system, bluntly put: How crazy does a criminal have to be in order to be spared the death penalty?

The high court has long held that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute the insane. Today, the justices examine whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute a person judged by the courts to be competent to stand trial but who does not fully understand the reason he is to be put to death.

NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Nobody disputes that Scott Panetti suffers from severe mental illness. A star football player in high school, he began having delusions in his teens and has been hospitalized a dozen times since. He's been diagnosed repeatedly with various forms of schizophrenia, was discharged from the military and put on Social Security disability because of his mental illness.

In 1992, Panetti's wife Sonja left him. She took their three-year-old daughter and went to live with her parents. On September 8, 1992, Panetti awoke, shaved his head, dressed himself in camouflage, and armed with a rifle went to the parents' home, where he shattered a sliding door to get in, chased Sonja into the yard, hitting her with the butt of his gun, and then shot Sonia's parents in front of his terrified wife and child. Later that day, he surrendered to police.

At the first hearing on Panetti's competence to stand trial, the jury deadlocked with only three jurors finding him mentally competent. A second jury, however, found him competent to stand trial. And eight months later, Panetti informed the judge that he wanted to represent himself.

Not only did defense lawyers oppose that, so did the prosecutor. But the judge said he was bound by state law and U.S. Supreme Court rulings to allow it. And so Scott Panetti, dressed in a Tom Mix-style cowboy outfit with a purple shirt, defended himself; issuing some 200 subpoenas, including one for the pope and another for John F. Kennedy, and at one point putting himself in the form of his alter ego, Sarge, on the witness stand.

Critics called the trial a circus and a mockery. But the jury found Panetti sane and guilty and sentenced him to death. Now lawyers appointed to represent him contend that he should not be executed because he does not rationally understand the reason he is to be put to death. Andrea Keilen is director of the Texas Defender Service.

ANDREA KEILEN: He knows that he committed the crimes, but he doesn't think that the crimes have anything to do with why he's going to be put to death. He thinks the reason he is going to be put to death is because the devil wants to keep him from preaching God's words.

TOTENBERG: But Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz counters that awareness is all that's necessary for execution.

TED CRUZ: Very few people on death row are entirely rational. Many suffer from some form of mental illness. But under Panetti's test, a significant number of those who are less than rational could, by virtue of that, be rendered immune from being executed despite having committed their heinous crimes.

TOTENBERG: Lawyer Keilen responds that the state's usual justifications for the death penalty, deterrence and retribution, don't exist in a case like this.

KEILEN: If the person who is going to be executed, in this case Scott Panetti, doesn't understand that his punishment is because he committed his murders, then that retributive goal of capital punishment is just not satisfied at all.

TOTENBERG: But the state of Texas argues that retribution is not for the individual but for society once court-appointed psychiatrists have concluded that a defendant like Panetti has the capacity to understand the reason for his execution. Again, Ted Cruz.

CRUZ: Panetti undoubtedly suffers from some mental illness, but no fewer than six professional psychiatrists have concluded that he was also exaggerating his symptoms. Ultimately, resolving the factual questions of disputing experts in assessing the complex and subtle question of someone's mental state is a question for the jury.

TOTENBERG: Defense lawyers countered that because Panetti was allowed to represent himself at trial, jurors did not hear any sensible presentation of evidence, nor did they hear from any defense psychiatrist who'd recently evaluated Panetti. Forensic psychiatrist Seth Silverman testified at a post-conviction hearing.

SETH SILVERMAN: It's rare that you see someone that sick. He has a pretty significant history of severe chronic paranoid schizophrenia that's rampant through the chart.

TOTENBERG: The state of Texas will tell the justices today that if the court rules in Scott Panetti's favor, it will open the door to hundreds of other similar appeals. Panetti's lawyers will try to minimize the effect of such a ruling, contending that Panetti's case is rare.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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