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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Sunday, June 4, 2006

Eighth Amendment Controversy: When is Someone too Insane to Die?

According to the New York Times, Scott Panetti, a death row inmate in Texas, understands that the state says it intends to execute him for the murder of his wife's parents. But Mr. Panetti, 48, who represented himself in court despite a long and colorful history of mental illness, says he believes that the state's real reason is a different one. He says the state, in league with Satan, wants to kill him to keep him from preaching the Gospel.

That delusion has been documented by doctors and acknowledged by judges and prosecutors. It poses what experts call the next big question in death penalty law now that the Supreme Court has barred the execution of juvenile offenders and the mentally retarded: what makes someone too mentally ill to be executed?

Two decades ago, the United States Supreme Court in Ford v. Wainwright ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibited the execution of the insane. Since then, lower courts have struggled to find a way to apply that principle in practice.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently said Mr. Panetti was sane enough to die based on the bare awareness of his impending execution and the stated reason for it. The full court will soon decide whether to hear the case.  More. . . [Mark Godsey]

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