April 20, 2007

Too ill to die?

Scott Panetti thinks Texas wants to kill him because it is in cahoots with the devil. The devil, he theorizes, wants to stop him from preaching the gospel to his fellow prisoners.

Panetti has a severe mental disorder. He had been hospitalized more than a dozen times before he killed his estranged wife’s parents back in 1992.

No one doubts that he is crazy (although the prosecution claims he is exaggerating). At his trial, he fired his attorney and represented himself. He flipped a coin to decide on whether to keep a potential juror on his panel. Wearing a purple cowboy suit and mimicking a John Wayne character called the Ringo Kid, he blamed the shootings on another personality named “Sarge.” As evidence, he tried to subpoena Jesus Christ, the Pope, and John F. Kennedy.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide whether he is too ill to execute.

In the 1986 case of Ford vs. Wainwright, the Supreme Court held that executing a person who is severely mentally ill constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, banned by the Eighth Amendment. The legal standard, known as the “Ford standard,” is whether a person is so insane that he cannot understand the link between his crime and the punishment.

But the Ford case did not give a precise definition of what constitutes competence for execution. Is a mere factual understanding enough? Or should the prisoner have a “rational” understanding of why he is going to be executed? That is the issue in Panetti's case.

The state argues that it is sufficient for Panetti to realize that he committed the murders and that he is being put to death. It is irrelevant that he thinks he is being executed for preaching the Bible.

Panetti's lawyers counter that a Constitutional execution requires more than this simple knowledge. The defendant should appreciate that the execution is society’s retribution for his crime. Panetti, living in a delusional world, cannot make that connection.

The American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness agree with Panetti's counsel. They have filed a joint petition arguing that people such as Panetti should not be executed because they “cannot rationally understand the reasons for their execution."

The highly polarized Supreme Court may sidestep this complex question on procedural grounds by asserting that Panetti’s appeals were exhausted. A decision is expected by July.