The New York Times is reporting that the U.S. Supreme Court has taken the Texas case of a schizophrenic death-row inmate in Texas to set the standard for determining when a mental illness is so severe that execution would be constitutionally impermissible.
The American Psychiatric Association expressed specific concern about the competency standard used by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the death sentence for Texas inmate Scott Panetti, in rejecting his petition for a writ of habeas corpus last May.
Panetti, convicted in Fredericksburg in 1992 of fatally shooting his in-laws in the presence of his estranged wife and their 3-year-old child, is a Navy veteran who was hospitalized 14 times for schizophrenia and other mental disorders in the decade before the crime.
A jury nonetheless found him competent to stand trial, and the judge permitted him to represent himself.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars the execution of the mentally ill. But the justices who decided that case did not settle on a definition of mental illness for the purpose of determining competency for execution.
The justices’ decision to hear his appeal was the latest indication of the Supreme Court’s concern about the administration of capital punishment. In recent years, the court declared unconstitutional the execution of mentally disabled defendants and those who committed murder before the age of 18.