High Court Blocks Execution Of Mentally Ill Killer

Thursday, June 28th 2007, 10:33 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A divided Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the execution of a Texas killer whose lawyers argued that he should not be put to death because he is mentally ill.

The court ruled 5-4 in the case of Scott Louis Panetti, who shot his in-laws to death 15 years ago in front of his wife and young daughter.

The convicted murderer says that he suffers from a severe documented illness that is the source of gross delusions. ``This argument, we hold, should have been considered,'' said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion.

Panetti's lawyers wanted the court to determine that people who cannot understand the connection between their crime and punishment because of mental illness may not be executed.

The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution bars ``the execution of a person who is so lacking in rational understanding that he cannot comprehend that he is being put to death because of the crime he was convicted of committing,'' they said in court papers.

In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said that Panetti had petitioned the federal courts twice in his case, but that the law allows only one petition.

``The court bends over backwards to allow Panetti'' to bring his current claim, despite no evidence that his condition has worsened, or even changed, since 1995, Thomas wrote.

One of Panetti's lawyers, Scott Hampton of Austin, Texas, said he was relieved.

``Executing Scott Panetti would have been a mindless, meaningless, miserable spectacle,'' said Hampton.

Siding with Kennedy in the majority were Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Joining Thomas in dissent were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.

Texas said the court should reject Panetti's appeal on procedural grounds. But it also argued that the court should set a tougher standard for mental illness exceptions to capital punishment. Only if a Death Row inmate ``lacks the capacity to recognize that his punishment both is the result of his being convicted of capital murder and will cause his death'' should his execution be halted, the state said. Panetti is competent on that basis, it said.

The killings took place in September 1992.

A former ranch hand and native of Hayward, Wis., Panetti had a history of mental problems before his conviction, recording 14 hospital stays over 11 years.

Four courts have said he was competent when he fired his trial lawyers. A jury and two courts rejected his defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. He personally argued that only an insane person could prove the insanity defense, dressing in cowboy clothing and submitting an initial witness list that included Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy.

Then-Justice Lewis Powell said 20 years ago that a person may not be put to death if he cannot perceive ``the connection between his crime and his punishment.''