By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2007
The Supreme Court yesterday blocked the execution of a schizophrenic Texas death-row inmate in a ruling that may allow more mentally ill condemned prisoners to contest their death sentences.
The court ruled in 1976 that it is unconstitutional to execute an insane prisoner, but since then no death-row inmate has succeeded in overturning a death sentence based on mental illness. Yesterday's ruling removed one obstacle to such claims: the fact that a prisoner's disorder might not become evident until after the deadline for raising constitutional appeals has passed.
By a vote of 5 to 4, the court said the law does not bar consideration of convicted murderer Scott Louis Panetti's claim that he is too delusional to understand the state's reasons for planning to put him to death, even though Panetti waited until his execution date was set in 2003 to raise it.
Requiring prisoners to meet the deadline would effectively require every inmate to lodge an "unripe" insanity claim just to preserve the option, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.
The court also held that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, the New Orleans-based federal court that regulates capital punishment in Texas, used an overly restrictive definition of mental incompetence when it rejected Panetti's claim. Panetti, who has a history of hospitalizations, says he knows that the state says it wants him to die for the 1992 murder of his mother-in-law and father-in-law. But he insists that the real reason is to prevent him from preaching the gospel.
The State of Texas suggested that Panetti met the requirement of the court's 1976 ruling, derived from then-Justice Lewis F. Powell's opinion that only those mentally sound enough to be "aware" of the reasons for their execution may be put to death.
But Kennedy ordered the case sent back to a federal district court to determine whether Panetti has no "rational understanding" of the connection between his acts and his execution.
The case is Panetti v. Quarterman, No. 06-6407.