Court strikes down death sentence for mentally ill man

The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 to send Scott Panetti's case back to the lower courts for a reevaluation of his competence.

A Texas death-row inmate who believes the state sentenced him to death to prevent him from preaching the Gospel won a reprieve on Thursday from the US Supreme Court.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court invalidated the death sentence of Scott Louis Panetti, saying he was too mentally ill to be executed.

The majority justices said that Mr. Panetti has had a long history of mental illness, and it was unclear whether he lacked a rational understanding of the true purpose of his death sentence. The high court declined to establish a new standard for mental competence before an individual may be subject to capital punishment. Instead, the court sent the case back to the lower courts in Texas to evaluate Panetti's claims of incompetence in more detail.

"Expert evidence may clarify the extent to which severe delusions may render a subject's perception of reality so distorted that he should be deemed incompetent," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority justices.

The Constitution's Eighth Amendment bars cruel and unusual punishments. The high court in recent years has set higher constitutional standards for the execution of juveniles and those diagnosed with mental retardation.

Prior to Thursday's ruling, the Eighth Amendment standard enforced by the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals for those with mental illness had been whether the condemned prisoner had an awareness that he or she had committed a crime and that the prisoner was being punished for that crime with a death sentence.

Lawyers for Panetti argued that the awareness standard was too low. They said that rather than mere awareness, a death-row inmate with mental illness should be capable of having a rational understanding of the reason for the execution. Severe delusions about the reasons for a death sentence undermine the retributive purpose of capital punishment, they said.

The majority justices agreed.

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said Panetti's case should have been dismissed on procedural grounds because he failed to raise the issue earlier in the appeals process. Justice Thomas said the court should have also afforded deference to the Texas state court determination that Panetti was competent enough to be executed.

Panetti's death sentence stems from a grisly Sept. 8, 1992, crime. Panetti's wife had taken their daughter to live with her parents and had obtained a protective order against Panetti because of his past abuse and recent threats.

Nonetheless, on Sept. 8, Panetti awoke before dawn and drove to his in-laws' house where he shot and killed his in-laws, Joe and Amanda Alvarado, at close range. He then took his wife and child hostage, holding them in a bunkhouse where he'd been living. After a standoff with police, Panetti released the two and surrendered. Later, that same day he confessed to killing his in-laws.

After being found competent to stand trial, Panetti fired his lawyer and represented himself. He presented an insanity defense and tried to subpoena 200 witnesses to testify on his behalf, including John F. Kennedy, the pope, and Jesus. The jury found him guilty and the next day sentenced him to death. Panetti, who refuses to take medication, has become a jailhouse preacher.

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