Panetti v. Quarterman 06-6407

Mentally Ill Death Row Inmates Get Another Chance

Austin, Texas, attorney Keith Hampton, one of Panetti’s court-appointed lawyers, says he is generally pleased with the decision, which gave his client pretty much everything he was hoping for.

“The only thing missing from the ruling is a clear standard for competence,” he says.

But Hampton says he can also understand why the court might not have wanted to go that far. And he says he feels “pretty good” about Panetti’s prospects for persuading a federal judge that he is not competent for execution.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif.-based victims’ rights organization, calls the decision the “Panetti punt” because the court didn’t answer the substantive Eighth Amendment question it was supposed to answer.

If the decision has a bright side, Scheidegger says, it is that the majority made clear it was talking about psychotic disorders, not the broad sweep of mental illnesses contained in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Lawyers for the Texas attorney general’s office refused to comment on the decision. But they did issue a prepared statement from Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who argued the case before the court.

Cruz said the decision will “invite abuse from capital murderers, subject the courts to numerous false claims of incompetency and even further delay justice for the victims’ families.”

But he also said prosecutors would “continue working” to ensure that Panetti is executed for the murders of his in-laws.

The lack of a clear standard of competence is a pretty damning indictment of the majority’s opinion. This will just result in more properly sentenced death row inmates claiming to be stir-crazy.

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