U.S. Supreme Court Adds Understanding to Restrictions on Executing the Mentally Ill

The United States Supreme Court recently held that a prisoner must understand why he is being put to death before he can be executed. Panetti v. Quarterman, No. 06-6407 551 U.S. 930 (June 28, 2007). The Court had previously forbid states from “carrying out a sentence of death upon a prisoner who is insane.” Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 409-410 (1986). Panetti involves a prisoner who was deemed competent at his trial, but has lost his sanity since his trial.

In 1992, Scott Louis Panetti staged a commando raid on the home of his estranged wife’s parents. He killed both parents and took his wife and daughter hostage. He later surrendered without harming the wife and daughter.

Before his trial, a court ordered psychiatric evaluation showed Panetti to suffer from a fragmented personality, delusions, and hallucinations. Panetti at 2. He had been hospitalized and medicated for these disorders numerous times. Panetti’s evaluation included an episode described by his wife, in a court filing in 1986, when he “had become convinced the devil had possessed their home and that, in an effort to cleanse their surroundings, petitioner had buried a number of valuables next to the house and engaged in other rituals.” Panetti at 3. The trial court, nonetheless, allowed him to not only stand trial, but represent himself. His standby attorney described Panetti’s behaviour during the trial as “bizarre,” “scary,” and “trance-like.” Id. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

Panetti appealed his conviction and sentence. Throughout the appeal process, the Texas State courts refused to allow his criminal defense attorney, now that he had one, to introduce his own psychiatric experts. After the State court set a date for his execution, Panetti, for the first time, asserted he was incompetent to be executed. The State court appointed state psychiatric experts to evaluate him. They reported that, although his behavior with them was bizarre, he knows he is to be executed and understands “the reason he is to be executed.” Panetti at 7. The State courts upheld the execution without a hearing.

Panetti filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Federal District Court. The court, while not deferring to the State court’s finding of competency, denied Panetti’s writ, holding that he knew the “fact of his impending execution and the factual predicate for the execution.” Panetti at 9. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Federal District Court had finally allowed Panetti’s attorney to introduce psychiatric testimony on his behalf. Panetti’s experts testified his “mental problems are indicative of ‘schizo-affective disorder,’ resulting in a ‘genuine delusion’ involving his understanding of the reason for his execution. According to the expert, this delusion has recast petitioner’s execution as ‘part of spiritual warfare. . . between the demons and the forces of the darkness and God and the angels and the forces of light.’” Panetti at 22. [internal cites omitted]. While Panetti claimed to understand “‘that the state is saying that [it wishes] to execute him for [his] murder[s],’ he believes in earnest that the stated reason is a ‘sham’ and the State in truth wants to execute him ‘to stop him from preaching.’” Id.

The U.S. Supreme stopped Panetti’s execution and derided the State’s handling of his case. First, the Court held that “once a prisoner seeking a stay of execution has made ‘a substantial threshold showing of insanity,’ the protection afforded by procedural due process includes a ‘fair hearing’ in accord with fundamental fairness. Panetti at 16. Ford at 426. The State should have allowed Panetti a hearing to determine his competence to be executed. Second, the Court addressed the requirement that a prisoner understand the reason for which he to be executed. A prisoner’s awareness that “the reason the State has given for his execution is his commission of the crimes in question” in not sufficient understanding. Panetti at 24. The Court held a prisoner’s delusions must be accounted for. Panetti at 25-28. In this case, Panetti’s mental illness prevented him from truly understanding that he was to be executed, not as part of a battle between good and evil, but as punishment for killing his wife’s parents.

The Court differentiated Panetti from similar cases, explaining that a prisoner could fail to understand why he is to be executed for reasons other than mental illness. Someone condemned to death “may be so callous as to be unrepentant; so self-centered and devoid of compassion as to lack all sense of guilt; so adept in transferring blame to others as to be considered, at least in the colloquial sense, to be out of touch with reality.” Panetti at 27. Those states of mind may just evidence “a misanthropic personality or an amoral character.” Id.