June 29, 2007

Supreme Court Decision: Schizophrenia & Death Penalty

The Supreme Court yesterday blocked the execution of a Texas death-row inmate who suffers from schizophrenia, 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, and many mentally ill prisoners in Texas have been executed for crimes committed while they where delusional.

This ruling removed one obstacle to such claims involving the death penalty: 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.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has praised today's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court blocking the execution of a Texas man who suffers from severe schizophrenia.

In Panetti v. Quarterman, the court held that an individual's understanding of the reasons why he or she is to be executed must be considered in determining whether application of the death penalty is constitutional -- rather than merely understanding the link between execution and death.

"For once, law has caught up with medical science," said NAMI Director of Policy and Legal Affairs Ronald S. Honberg. "The circumstances of this case are tragic and no one minimizes the gravity of the crime or the suffering of the victims. However, execution of someone who is profoundly ill would only compound the original tragedy and represent a profound injustice for us all."

"Severe delusions mean severe illness. Rational understanding and judgment are severely compromised. Application of the death penalty becomes meaningless."

NAMI previously filed an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief in the case with the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association.

The Supreme Court's decision can be found at this link (pdf file). The NAMI amicus brief is at this link.

Despite a long history of schizophrenia, Scott Panetti was allowed to represent himself at his trial on charges of murdering his parents-in-law 15 years ago. He frequently spoke irrationally and issued subpoenas to John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ, and Pope John Paul II before being sentenced to death.

Continuing to experience delusions and other symptoms of severe mental illness throughout incarceration on death row, Panetti believed his planned execution was part of an evil conspiracy between Texas and demonic forces to stop him from preaching the gospel.

SOURCE National Alliance on Mental Illness


The fact that the man is in a prison and not a mental hospital is a crime, in my opinion.

It's encouraging to see the outcome of his death sentence and that NAMI has spoken out in support of the finding, though.

Posted by: Nell at November 30, 2007 11:48 PM

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