IMAGE: SCOTT PANETTI
Brett Coomer  /  KRT via Newscom file
Death row inmate Scott Panetti, seen here in 1999, was at the center of a Supreme Court ruling Thursday.
updated 6/28/2007 12:30:56 PM ET 2007-06-28T16:30:56

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.

Lawyers for the convicted murderer say 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 should have been given the opportunity to submit expert psychiatric evidence in state court because “it is uncontested” that he made a substantial showing of incompetency, Kennedy wrote.

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.

Dissent on technicality
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 that “executing Scott Panetti would have been a mindless, meaningless, miserable spectacle. What this decision means is that you can bring in experts to try to determine a person’s rationality.”

Hampton said the number of people on Death Row with the kind of mental illness that Panetti suffers from is relatively small.

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

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.

Found competent by four courts
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.”

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.

The case is Panetti v. Quarterman, 06-6407.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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