Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Basis for Finding an Inmate Incompetent to Be Executed Expanded; Gross Delusions That Obstruct an Inmate's Rational Understanding of Why the Inmate Is Being Executed Are Relevant; Inmate Entitled to a Fair Hearing and to Submit Own Expert Evidence on the Competency Question

Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Basis for Finding an Inmate Incompetent to Be Executed Expanded; Gross Delusions That Obstruct an Inmate's Rational Understanding of Why the Inmate Is Being Executed Are Relevant; Inmate Entitled to a Fair Hearing and to Submit Own Expert Evidence on the Competency Question

Article excerpt

On the final day of its year-long term, for the second year in a row, the United States Supreme Court issued a significant mental health-related ruling. A year earlier the Supreme Court upheld Arizona's ability to (1) limit the scope of the insanity defense and (2) preclude the use of mental health expert testimony in conjunction with a mens rea determination. Clark v. Arizona, 126 S. Ct. 2709 (2006). This year the Court closed its term by focusing on when prisoners are incompetent to be executed and, in effect, expanded the basis for such a determination.

In 1986 the United States Supreme Court established in Ford v. Wainwright that it violates the Eighth Amendment to execute an "insane" prisoner. 477 U.S. 399. In part because it was a plurality opinion in which no single opinion received the needed support of a majority of the nine justices on the Court and in part because the justices who supported this position spoke in relatively broad terms that provided little direction as to the test or procedures to be applied, lower courts have wrestled with its application and a number have issued relatively restrictive holdings in response. See, e.g., Walton v. Johnson, 440 F.3d 160 (4th Cir. 2006).

In the case before the Supreme Court in 2007, Scott Louis Panetti had been convicted and sentenced to die by a Texas state court in 1995. Three years earlier, Panetti had awakened before dawn, dressed in camouflage, and driven to the home of his estranged wife's parents. Breaking the front-door lock, he entered the house and, in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter, shot and killed his wife's mother and father. He took his wife and daughter hostage for the night before surrendering to police. During the previous decade, Panetti had been hospitalized fourteen times for schizophrenia, manic depression, hallucinations, and delusions of persecution. One Texas jury deadlocked on his competence to stand trial, but a second jury found him sufficiently competent to stand trial.

Proclaiming himself healed by God as a "born-again April fool," Panetti refused further antipsychotic medication a few months before his trial (and, with one exception, has continued to refuse this medication). He dismissed his lawyers and served as his own attorney, winning permission from the trial judge to represent himself.

At trial, Panetti mounted an oftentimes incoherent defense in which he claimed that his body had been taken over by an alter ego he called Sarge Ironhorse and that demons were bent on killing him for his Christian beliefs. He appeared in court with a Tom Mix cowboy hat slung over his back, wearing purple western shirts and cowboy boots. He tried to subpoena Jesus, John F. Kennedy, Anne Bancroft, and Pope John Paul II, flipped a coin to choose his jurors, repeatedly ignored the trial judge's orders, and conducted a counter-productive cross-examination of his estranged wife during which he forced her to relive the murders in graphic detail. His standby attorney described his behavior as "bizarre," "scary," and "trance-like."

The jury rejected Panetti's insanity defense, convicted him in ninety minutes, and sentenced him to death. Two months after sentencing, a Texas trial court found him incompetent to waive the appointment of counsel to represent him in his appeals.

In the course of these appeals, Panetti's counsel asserted that Panetti was incompetent to be executed. A supporting letter from a psychologist and a law professor who interviewed Panetti while on death row was used to support this assertion. In response, the trial court initially instructed counsel to submit the names of mental health experts that the court should consider appointing to evaluate Panetti's competence and scheduled a status conference for this purpose. The trial judge, however, without notifying defense counsel, cancelled the status conference and appointed two mental health experts on his own. Further, he rejected defense counsel's request for funds to hire their own mental health expert. …

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