Court rules mentally ill cannot get death

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A divided Supreme Court yesterday blocked the execution of a Texas killer whose lawyers argued that he should not be put to death because he is mentally ill.

The court ruled 5-4 in the case of Scott Louis Panetti, who fatally shot his in-laws in 1992 in front of his wife and young daughter.

Lawyers for the convicted murderer say he has a severe mental illness that is the source of gross delusions. “This argument, we hold, should have been considered,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion.

Panetti should have been given the opportunity to submit expert psychiatric evidence in state court because “it is uncontested” that he made a substantial showing of incompetency, Justice Kennedy wrote.

Panetti’s lawyers wanted the court to determine that people who cannot understand the connection between their crime and punishment because of mental illness should not be executed.

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said that Panetti petitioned the federal courts twice in his case, but that the law allows only one petition.

“The court bends over backwards to allow Panetti” to bring his current claim, despite no evidence that his condition has worsened or even changed since 1995,” Justice Thomas wrote.

One of Panetti’s lawyers, Scott Hampton of Austin, Texas, said that “executing Scott Panetti would have been a mindless, meaningless, miserable spectacle. What this decision means is that you can bring in experts to try to determine a person’s rationality.”

Siding with Justice Kennedy in the majority are Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Joining Justice Thomas in dissent are Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Texas said the court should reject Panetti’s appeal on procedural grounds. But it also argued that the court should set a tougher standard for mental illness exceptions to capital punishment. Only if a death row inmate “lacks the capacity to recognize that his punishment both is the result of his being convicted of capital murder and will cause his death” should his execution be halted, the state said.

Panetti is competent on that basis, it said.

A former ranch hand and native of Hayward, Wis., Panetti had a history of mental problems before his conviction, recording 14 hospital stays over 11 years.

Four courts said he was competent when he fired his trial lawyers. A jury and two courts rejected his defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. He personally argued that only an insane person could prove the insanity defense, dressing in cowboy clothing and submitting an initial witness list that included Jesus Christ and the late President John F. Kennedy.

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