Thursday, June 28, 2007

Breaking News - SCOTUS Chooses Life

In breaking news, the Houston Chronicle reports today that the U.S. Supreme Court has blocked the execution of a mentally ill inmate in Texas who has been on Death Row since 1995.

The 5-4 ruling overturned two prior lower court decisions in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Scott Louis Panetti who was on death row for the shooting death of his in-laws in front of his wife and young daughter.

During trial, Panetti had fired his ace attorney, calling him a "bronco steer and an infidel." Then, acting as his own counsel, Panetti proceeded to issue subpoenas to 240 defense witnesses, including "Jesus" addressed to "Heaven.

The lower courts rejected Panetti's argument of mental illness and upheld the death sentence. However, defense council was able to successfully argue to the Supreme Court that 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" killed for crimes against the state.

In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the Supreme Court had banned states from executing inmates who were insane to the degree they were "unaware of the punishment they were about to suffer" and the reasons for it.

Whether Panetti was sane enough to kill or not, Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia had no problem trashing precedent and agreeing with the lower courts. According to their decision, Panetti had waited too long to raise the legal issue of mental competence; and this procedural lapse trumped every other legal argument in the case.

Using countervailing reasoning, Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority as noted in the Washington Post:

Requiring prisoners to meet the deadline would effectively require every inmate to lodge an "unripe" insanity claim just to preserve the option...adding "to the burden imposed on courts, applicants, and the States, with no clear advantage toany."
Indeed, Kennedy ruled that failure to bring a legal claim of incompetency during the earlier stages of a case should not bar an individual from introducing a later legal claim. A petitioner only needed to show a "substantial threshold showing of insanity."

Kennedy went so far as to scold the Texas legal system for failing to provide Panetti the means to establish his mental state in accordance with the law of Ford.

The state court failed to provide the procedures to which petitioner was entitled under the Constitution. Ford identifies the measures a State must provide when a prisoner alleges incompetency to be executed...[A] fair hearing...including an oportunity to submit "expert psychiatric evidence that may differ from the State's own psychiatric examination." The procedures the state court provided petitioner were so deficient that they cannot be reconciled with any reasonable interpretation of the Ford rule.
The Supreme Court decision of Panetti v. Quarterman appears to expand the rights of death row inmates. Based on the ruling, any legal claim of substance grounded on prior case history can now be argued in spite of statutory time limits. The prosecution had asked the Courts to reject Panetti's claim and further restrict future appeals based on mental competence.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined Justice Kennedy in the majority and remanded the case. Mental health experts will now examine Panetti and determine the state of his "rationality," as defense attorney Keith S. Hampton noted.

Executing people like Penetti "serves no purpose and offends our sense of decency and common humanity,'' said Gregory W. Wiercioch, a staff attorney with Texas Defender Service who argued the case before the Supreme Court.

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