Supreme Court Stops the Insanity

Finally a little bit of sanity on the bench! Yesterday’s 5-4 decision,
written by Justice Kennedy—whose votes have helped temper the Court’s conservatism on capital punishment (if nothing else)—found that Texas should not execute Scott Panetti because his mental illness prevents him from comprehending the reasons for his death sentence.

Panetti is schizophrenic with a history of depression, paranoia, and delusions. He was hospitalized 14 times before he killed his in-laws in 1992. One hospitalization came after he buried furniture he thought was possessed by the devil. After being arrested and charged with capital murder, Panetti said that “Sarge”—one of his personalities—committed the murders. Panetti then fired his lawyers so that he could represent himself at his 1995 trial. He wore a purple cowboy suit and 10-gallon hat to the courthouse, and addressed the jury with old-western phrases like “runaway mule” and “bronc steer.” Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and Pope John Paul II were among those who he subpoenaed to testify.

When the “circus” was over, the jury voted to convict and sentence Panetti to death. One juror said that Panetti’s irrational behavior was scary, and that was the reason the jurors chose death. Since arriving on death row, Panetti has believed that Texas is conspiring with the devil to kill him so that he won’t be able to preach the Gospel anymore.

Think this all sounds crazy? What’s even crazier is that despite the obviousness of Panetti’s illness, his lawyers toiled for 12 years filing dozens of petitions with four unsympathetic courts before the Supreme Court finally stopped the insanity. Well, temporarily at least. The case will now go back down to the federal district court, which will decide whether Panetti has no “rational understanding” of the connection between his crime and execution.

Executing the mentally ill is unconstitutional, but because the standard is so high to prove incompetency, not a single inmate since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976 has successful overturned his death sentence based on mental illness. Five to 10 percent of death row inmates suffer from a serious mental illness. And it’s worth noting, the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and
the American Bar Association all support abolishing the death penalty for the mentally ill.

—Celia Perry


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