Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Fifth Circuit Holds Capital Defendant Not Entitled to All Expert Funding Requested; Was Competent-to-Be-Executed; Edwards Decision on State's Right to Deny Self-Representation Not Retroactive

Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Fifth Circuit Holds Capital Defendant Not Entitled to All Expert Funding Requested; Was Competent-to-Be-Executed; Edwards Decision on State's Right to Deny Self-Representation Not Retroactive

Article excerpt

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the death penalty on August 21, 2013 for a mentally ill inmate alleging incompetence-to-be-executed, finding the district court's decision to deny funding for additional expert assistance and testing was not an abuse of discretion. The Fifth Circuit also held that the district court's decision weighed all of the evidence, including the inmate's secretly recorded conversations with family, and was therefore not clearly erroneous. The Court further held that the United States Supreme Court case of Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164 (2008), holding that the State may prohibit a mentally ill inmate found competent to stand trial from representing himself at trial had no retroactive application in federal habeas corpus proceedings. Panetti v. Stephens, 727 F.3d 398 (5th Cir. 2013.)

In 1992, Scott Louis Panetti shot his estranged wife's parents at close range, killing them and spraying his wife and three-year-old daughter with their blood. Panetti demanded to represent himself at trial although he had a long history of schizophrenia, and in spite of the trial judge's pleas to accept counsel. His only defense was insanity. His appointed standby counsel described his self-representation as bizarre and his trial a farce and mockery of self representation. The jury convicted him of capital murder and sentenced him to death. The conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal and collateral review.

In October 2003, the trial court set an execution date and Panetti filed a motion alleging for the first time that he was incompetent-to-be-executed. The trial court rejected the motion without a hearing. Texas law required Panetti to make a "substantial showing of incompetency" before entitling him to court-appointed experts. On federal habeas review, Panetti submitted additional evidence of mental illness and the district court stayed the execution to permit the state trial court to consider the renewed motion in light of the supplemental evidence. In February 2004, the state court appointed a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist to examine Panetti, implicitly finding he had made a substantial showing of incompetency. These experts filed a joint report finding Panetti competent-to-be-executed. Without holding a hearing or ruling on Panetti's motion to appoint him his own experts, the trial court found Panetti competent-to-be-executed.

Panetti then returned to federal court arguing that Texas' failure to appoint him mental health experts and provide a hearing violated his due process rights under Ford v. Wainright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986). Ford held that denying a prisoner the right to present and rebut evidence in a competency-to-be-executed proceeding violated due process. The district court agreed and also found that such a denial by the state court was not entitled to deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Panetti's experts then testified that he understood the reason for his execution--the murder of his in-laws, but his delusions caused him to believe Texas was in league with the forces of evil and sought to prevent him from preaching the Gospel. The State's experts agreed Panetti was mentally ill, but his behavior was attributed to malingering. After hearing the evidence, the district court found that Panetti's delusional belief system prevented him from rationally appreciating the connection between his crimes and his execution. But the district court found Panetti competent to be executed because the Fifth Circuit standard at that time was that the prisoner only needed to know the fact of his impending execution and the reason for it. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court decision and Panetti petitioned the United States Supreme Court for review.

In 2007, the United States Supreme Court granted Panetti's petition for certiorari and reversed, fmding the Fifth Circuit's standard for competency-to-be-executed too restrictive. …

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