When is someone too mentally ill to execute? The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday on a case raising that question. The justices may end up not issing a broad ruling but rather concentrate on the defendant’s right to appeal. The case involves Scott Panetti, 49, a Wisconsin native on Texas’ deeath row for the 1992 murders of his wife’s parents, says the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He had been hospitalized 14 times in the years before the killings and represented himself at trial. Panetti was less than a day from being executed in 2004 when his execution was stayed.
The case is being closely watched by mental health advocates from across the country. A number of interest groups, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association, filed briefs urging the court to provide a clearer definition of who is too mentally ill to be executed. Panetti’s lawyers say he can not rationally understand why he is to be executed and, therefore, the execution is unconstitutional. Lawyers for Texas say that it is enough that Panetti knows that he was convicted of committing the crime and that he will die. The justices spent most of the hourlong hearing considering whether Panetti’s lawyers had the right to file an appeal at this stage.