Scott Panetti, a mentally ill Texas inmate, illustrates the growing quandary over the application of a 1986 Supreme Court decision barring execution of the insane, reports the New York Times. The ruling appears to be limited to those without the capacity to understand that they are about to be put to death and why. Whether Panetti, 48, fits that definition is a matter of dispute. In an appeal to the Supreme Court that could affect the cases of other mentally ill prisoners awaiting execution, Panetti's attorneys argue that while he has a “factual awareness” of his execution, he has a “delusional belief” that it is unconnected to his crime, and that he should therefore be spared lethal injection.
Experts and advocates say the issue of executing the mentally ill is the next frontier in death penalty law. “This is an emerging issue,” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. Concern over execution of the mentally disabled prompted the American Bar Association last August to join a widening number of professionals calling for a halt to death sentences and executions for defendants with severe mental disorders that “significantly impaired” their rational judgment or capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct. The moratorium was endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.