Panetti Sane Enough to Die

U.S. District Court rules (again) on the mentally ill Texas inmate

Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti is "seriously mentally ill" and has been for some time – in fact, as U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled on March 26, he was "under the influence of this severe mental illness" when, in 1992, he murdered his in-laws, Joe and Amanda Alvarado, in Fredericksburg and remained ill "when he insisted on representing himself at trial." Yet Panetti is sane enough to be executed, Sparks ruled. His "delusions do not prevent his rational understanding of the causal connection between those murders and his death sentence, and he in fact has such an understanding," Sparks wrote. Indeed, Panetti's understanding "is most clearly demonstrated by his rationally articulated position that the punishment is unjustified: He believes the state should not execute him because he was mentally ill when he committed the murders."

Sparks ruled similarly in 2004, finding Panetti sane enough to die, but the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case, opining that the previous handling of Panetti's case was "flawed" and "too restrictive" to satisfy the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments. In deeming Panetti sane enough for execution, the courts had only considered whether Panetti was "aware" that he faced execution and that the state said he would be executed because he murdered the Alvarados. The problem, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court majority, is that Panetti doesn't actually believe that to be the case. Rather, Panetti has long said that the real reason the state wants him dead is to prevent him from preaching the "gospel of the Lord King." The question, in part, Ken­nedy wrote, was whether the effects of mental illness can "so impair" a prisoner's concept of reality so that he "cannot reach a rational understanding of the reasons for the execution."

The Supremes punted the Panetti case back to Sparks, tasking him with wading through the legal morass and taking a first crack at defining a standard against which to measure mental eligibility for execution – a standard that might ultimately be applied to other similarly situated inmates. In his ruling, however, Sparks raises additional questions about how to define and apply a broader standard – including wondering about the limits of making sanity determinations for an inmate like Panetti, whose impairment is "cyclical." In such a case, does a "period of improved lucidity" mark "him for death, or has he not 'regained' his sanity in a lucid period in the same way as a person who has made some stable improvement or recovery in mental condition can be said to have 'regained sanity'?" Sparks asks. "The court is concerned by these questions for the future, but they are not the work of the day."

Panetti's case will now be forwarded to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court for Appeals for review.

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