incompetency mental illness Panetti U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court Must Prevent Execution of Scott Panetti

Attorneys for Scott Panetti, a man with severe mental illness who has spent nearly 20 years on death row in Texas, are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider once again whether he is incompetent to be executed.

Attorney George Parnham begins his recent op-ed, published in the Austin American-Statesman, with a vivid description of Scott Panetti, who has spent the last years 20 on death row in Texas for the murder of his in-laws:
Do you remember Scott Panetti? He is pretty unforgettable. Panetti is the man with paranoid schizophrenia who was allowed to represent himself, while on trial for his life, wearing a make-believe Western cowboy outfit. He insisted on defending himself and attempted to summon dozens of witnesses, including John F. Kennedy, the pope and even Jesus Christ.
Parnham calls Panetti’s delusional courtroom performance not just painful to watch but “a mockery of civilized society.”  Others have called Panetti’s trial a “circus” and a “farce” that resulted in a death sentence for a man with a long history of severe and persistent mental illness.

Years later, attorneys for Panetti argued that his mental illness renders him unfit for execution – he believes he is being executed for preaching the gospel – and took his case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in Panetti v. Quarterman (2007). Panetti won his case, which was sent back to the lower courts for reconsideration, specifically of the restrictive standard the 5th Circuit was using for assessing competency for execution.

One might think that winning at the Supreme Court would be enough to save Panetti from death, but as Ron Honberg of the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) explains in his op-ed for the National Law Journal, Panetti’s attorneys are now asking the Court to hear the case again. Honberg writes:

The Supreme Court explicitly recognized that the views of mental health experts would be critical in further proceedings in Panetti’s case. Yet, in spite of the court’s directive, the Fifth Circuit and the district court ignored the diagnostic features and clinical realities of [Panetti’s] long-standing psychotic disorder.

Read the op-eds by Parnham and Honberg in their entirety, as well as a blog post by Brandon L. Garrett, Professor of Law at University of Virginia School of Law.   In his piece for the American Constitution Society, Professor Garrett writes:

Now the Supreme Court has an opportunity to make clearer than it did already in Panetti’s case years ago that the Eighth Amendment forbids the state to execute individuals who are medically diagnosed as psychotic.  If the Court does not accept Panetti’s petition, the issue will continue to be litigated with urgency and frequency.  Unless medically informed evaluation of psychosis is relied upon, the death penalty will continue to be irrationally applied to execute utterly deluded individuals who cannot understand what is happening to them.  Such executions turn capital punishment itself into a grand delusion.

The death penalty serves no legitimate purpose if the person being executed does not understand why he is being put to death. This is certainly the case with Mr. Panetti, whose delusional belief system has distorted every aspect of his case.

It’s time for the U.S. Supreme Court to settle this issue once and for all by determining a clear standard for competency.