HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Saturday, July 2, 2005

Bell v. Thompson

Here is an other excellent post from Professor Doug Mossman:

    Nearly lost amid the discussion of the “Ten Commandments” cases was the Supreme Court’s June 27 5-4 ruling in Bell v. Thompson (Case No. 04-514).
    In 1985, Gregory Thompson abducted a Tennessee woman from a parking lot, forced her to drive to a remote location, then stabbed her to death. Thompson’s attorneys offered no evidence during the guilt phase of his trial, and they did not focus on his mental problems during sentencing. Thompson was convicted and sentenced to death, and his state appeals failed. His federal habeus attorneys retained a psychologist, Dr. Sultan, who concluded that Thompson suffered from serious mental illness when he committed the crime. Thompson's habeas counsel failed to include Dr. Sultan’s deposition and report in the record, however. The district court dismissed Thompson’s habeus petition, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari.

 Five months later, the Court of Appeals issued an amended opinion that vacated the district court's habeas judgment and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing on an ineffective-assistance claim. The Court of Appeals asserted its authority to issue an amended opinion five months after the Supreme Court denied a rehearing based on its inherent power to reconsider an opinion before issuance of the mandate. Yet by this time, the state of Tennessee had undertaken preparations and substantial further proceedings to execute Thompson. When the state appealed, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and subsequently reversed the Sixth Circuit’s amended opinion, holding that its five-month delay was an abuse of discretion.

 Although the majority’s decision deals with procedural issues, Justice Breyer’s dissenting opinion is striking for its length and its discussion of Thompson’s mental illness. Justice Breyer praises the Court of Appeals judge who authored the amended opinion for devoting “hundreds of hours” to reviewing records, which led to the conclusion that the missing psychology report and deposition were crucial documents; failure to consider them “could mean a miscarriage of justice.” Justice Breyer’s opinion then discusses Thompson's “horrendous childhood, his family history of mental illness, his childhood problems,” and the pre-arrest evidence that Thompson suffered from a serious psychosis. Justice Breyer’s opinion includes, as appendices, Dr. Sultan’s report and deposition, which detail the psychologist’s and others’ observations about Thompson’s mental illness.

 The dissent makes valuable reading for prosecutors and defense attorneys who handle death penalty cases: it illustrates the complexity of information that may be relevant to a diagnostic determination (and possibly to sentencing) and the potential difficulty of obtaining all needed information before trial. 

    Justice Breyer’s dissent also is striking for its emphasis on a psychotic disorder’s potential importance in mitigating a death sentence. This is especially relevant following the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), which barred execution for a class of individuals based on a psychiatric diagnosis — mental retardation. The impact of mental retardation on a person’s functional capacities was the basis for the majority’s reasoning in Atkins. At least three law review articles (listed below) have suggested that Atkins may pave the way for additional exemptions from capital punishment based on psychiatric conditions.

Christopher Slobogin, What Atkins Could Mean for People with Mental Illness, 33 N.M. L. Rev. 293 (2003).
John H. Blume and Sheri Lynn Johnson, Killing the Non-willing: Atkins, the Volitionally Incapacitated, and the Death Penalty, 55 S.C. L. Rev. 93 (2003).
Douglas Mossman, Atkins v. Virginia: A Psychiatric Can of Worms, 33 N.M. L. Rev. 293 (2003).

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