News Release

Executions and Madmen

Washington, DC (June 28, 2007) – Defense lawyers, legal scholars and mental health advocates breathed a sigh of relief today when the Supreme Court narrowly reversed the case of a mentally-ill Texas death row inmate. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) applauded the ruling for upholding centuries of “compassionate precedent” over recent attempts to streamline death sentences in the state and federal courts.

In today’s decision, Panetti v. Quarterman, petitioner Scott Louis Panetti had been found competent to stand trial and was convicted of capital murder, despite evidence of psychotic episodes dating back years. On death row, his condition worsened, and although it was alleged that Panetti knew that the state intended to execute him for the murders of his wife’s parents, it was not credibly disputed that Panetti believed that was a “sham” and the state actually wanted to stop him from “preaching.” Motions to vacate or stay his death sentence were denied by the state and federal courts, and Panetti’s lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court for a fair hearing on the issue of his mental health.

In a 5-4 decision drafted by Justice Anthony Kennedy, a majority of the Court found the rulings below at odds with Ford v. Wainwright, a 1986 Supreme Court case prohibiting execution of the insane as cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment. Under Ford, which itself was based on the Framers’ understanding of the common law in 1789 when the Eighth Amendment was ratified, an inmate who can show that his mental state would bar his execution is entitled to a fair hearing, which Panetti did not get in the state or federal courts.

Terrica Redfield, NACDL’s Death Penalty Counsel observed that in the 21 years since Ford was decided, not one death row inmate has been found incompetent to be executed in the federal Fifth Circuit court of appeals, which hears state and federal death penalty appeals from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

“The Supreme Court has appropriately recognized that neither the State of Texas nor the Fifth Circuit have adequate protections for ensuring that the mentally ill are not executed,” Redfield said. “With this decision, the Court has once again advised the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Fifth Circuit that they must comply with the law.” She added that NACDL welcomes Supreme Court decisions that require state and federal courts to abide by the law, particularly in this case involving a man who has lived with severe schizophrenia since his late teens.

President Martin S. Pinales criticized the dissenters for ignoring centuries of legal precedents in favor of recent restrictions on habeas corpus, particularly in death penalty cases. “Execution of the mentally ill had been prohibited at common law for hundreds of years when the Eighth Amendment was drafted, on a number of grounds,” Pinales explained. “Lord Coke said that executing a madman was repulsive to society and served no deterring purpose. Blackstone wrote that insanity was its own punishment, rendering retribution unnecessary. The church said that it was a sin, because a delusional convict could not make his peace with God.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, dissented on the ground that the federal law generally allows only one federal habeas petition in death penalty cases, and that Panetti should not have had a “second bite at the apple.”

“What would happen then if an inmate loses his mind after his appeals are exhausted?” Pinales asked. “It’s somewhat astonishing that four members of the court would rather throw out original intent and overrule over 1,000 years of compassionate precedent for the sake of a mere technicality.”

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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.