Monday, July 9, 2007

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Scott Panetti

On June 28, 2007, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of severely mentally ill death row inmate Scott Panetti and blocked his execution. The court questioned the value of executing a person who does not comprehend why he is being put to death. You can find the opinion (written by Justice Kennedy) at You can find more information about Scott Panetti and watch a short documentary about his case on the Texas Defender Service (TDS) website: Additional information also is available from The Justice Project:

StandDown Texas has posted all of the national and state-based media coverage of the Panetti decision. Go to

Read the response from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
So what happens now to Scott Panetti? Well, the justices found that a lower federal appeals court had improperly interpreted Supreme Court precedent when they decided Panetti was sane enough to be executed. They said the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans used "an improperly restrictive test" to uphold the finding of competence. (The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had said it didn’t matter what Panetti believed as long as he could acknowledge the murders as well as the stated purpose of his execution.) The Supreme Court decision sends the case back to a federal district judge to hold a hearing as to whether Panetti’s delusions are indeed so severe that he cannot make the connection between his crime and punishment and should be spared.

Here's more from the Wall Street Journal (June 29, 2007): "In the opinion, Justice Kennedy said 'gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put an awareness of a link between a crime and its punishment in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose.' While Thursday's ruling continues a trend in which the Court has limited the imposition of the death penalty on defendants with limited intellectual capacity or maturity levels, it didn't address the rising issue of the influx of mentally ill defendants in the criminal justicesystem and on death row. In the opinion, Justice Kennedy stated as much, saying: 'we do not attempt to set down a rule governing all competency determinations.'"

At least 20 individuals have been executed by the state of Texas, despite documented histories of paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other severe mental illnesses; many were denied treatment before the commission of their crimes. Still others with mental illness continue to languish on death row, waiting, like Scott Panetti, to be found “competent to execute.” The 5th Circuit has never found a death row inmate incompetent for execution.

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