Panetti v. Quarterman (06-6407)

Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit (May 9, 2006)

Oral argument: Apr. 18, 2007


In 1992, Panetti killed his parents-in-law by shooting them at close range inside their Texas home while his wife and daughter watched in terror. After surrendering to police, Panetti was tried, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. Panetti, however, suffers from a long history of mental illness including schizoaffective disorder. Although he understands that he killed two people and he knows that the state’s stated reason for his execution is because of the murders, he believes that the state actually intends to execute him in order to carry out a satanic conspiracy against him. Panetti petitioned both the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for a writ of habeas corpus, but both courts upheld Panetti’s execution on the grounds that he is “aware” of his death sentence and its stated purpose. Panetti argues that “awareness” is not enough and that a prisoner must also have a “rational understanding” of the connection between his crime and punishment. By accepting certiorari review of this case, the Supreme Court of the United States will determine whether executing a mentally ill prisoner who lacks “rational understanding” of the reasons for his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment.

Questions Presented

Does the Eighth Amendment permit the execution of a death row inmate who has a factual awareness of the reason for his execution but who, because of severe mental illness, has a delusional belief as to why the state is executing him, and thus does not appreciate that this execution is intended to seek retribution for his capital crime?


Does the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual” punishment ban the execution of a mentally ill prisoner, who, although he knows that he has committed a crime and has been sentenced to death, manifests insane delusions about the real reasons for his execution? What is the standard for determining how “aware” a mentally ill prisoner must be of the reason for his sentence before he may be legally executed?


On September 8, 1992, Scott Louis Panetti, dressed in camouflage military fatigues and donning a recently shaved head, fired a sawed off shotgun at Mr. and Mrs. Alvarado, his parents-in-law, killing them instantly. See Brief for Petitioner Panetti at 7. The close range shootings were carried out in front of Panetti’s estranged wife and daughter, who, while pleading for their own lives, were sprayed by the blood of the victims. See Brief for Respondent Quartermanat 2. After escaping to a nearby bunkhouse, Panetti was later apprehended by police. See id.

Panetti suffers from schizophrenia and other related mental illnesses and had been hospitalized on multiple occasions prior to killing his in-laws. See Brief for Petitioner at 7. Despite his mental disorder the trial court judge ruled that he was competent to stand trial and could represent himself. See id at 11. At trial, Panetti appeared in an old-fashioned cowboy outfit, shouted incomprehensible ramblings at the judge and jury, and applied to subpoena more than 200 witnesses, including Pope John Paul II, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus Christ. See id. Panetti also blamed the shootings on “Sarge,” one of his multiple personalities whom he claimed was responsible for killing the Alvarados. See id at 14. Still, the jury found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to death. See Brief for Respondent at 2. On appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Panetti’s conviction and the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari review. See id at 3.

Shortly before his scheduled execution, Panetti’s attorneys petitioned the state court to determine his competency for execution. See Panetti v. Dretke, 448 F. 3d, 815, 816 (5th Cir, 2006). The state appointed a psychiatrist and psychologist who filed a joint report which concluded that Panetti “knows that he will be executed and that he has the ability to understand the reason he is to be executed;” hence, the court upheld the sentence. Id.

Appealing the state court decision, Panetti petitioned the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas for a writ of habeas corpus review. The federal district court conducted its own evidentiary review, finding that Panetti suffered from a schizoaffective disorder which caused him to delude that the state sentenced him to death in order to prevent him from preaching the Gospel. See id at 817. However, the court also found that he was aware that he had committed two murders, and he was also aware that the state’s stated reason for his execution was because of the murders. Accordingly, the district court also affirmed his death sentence. See id.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit also affirmed, holding that it does not matter that Panetti believes that he will be executed because of a larger scheme to persecute him. The court found that in order for a mentally ill prisoner to be executed, he need only be “aware” of his crime and sentence, as per the standard established by the US Supreme Court in Ford v. Wainwright. See id at 821. “Awareness,” according to the Fifth Circuit, does not require that the prisoner possess any “rational understanding” of the reason for his execution. See id. Hence, the Fifth Circuit held that because Panetti is currently “aware” that the stated reason for his execution is because he killed the Alvarados, it does not matter that he actually believes that the state is conspiring against him. See id.

Panetti has appealed the Fifth Circuit’s decision by filing a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. In his petition, Panetti requested that the court establish a standard to determine the requisite level of “awareness” that a mentally ill patient must have with respect to his crime and sentence at the time of his execution. See Petition for a Writ of Certiorari for Petitioner Panetti.


The Supreme Court’s decision in this case should establish a clear test to determine the degree to which a mentally ill prisoner must be “aware” of both the crime that he committed and the death sentence that he received as a result.

In arguing that Panetti’s death sentence should be upheld, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice urges literal “awareness,” arguing that the execution of a mentally ill prisoner would not be cruel and unusual so long as the prisoner is able “to perceive the connection between his crime and his punishment.” See Brief for Respondent at 11. In furtherance of this argument, the Department cites federal case law to the effect that there is no legal requirement for a prisoner to possess any “rational understanding” of his sentence. See id at 12. Hence, as the Department argues, since Panetti is able to understand that he committed a crime and is able to understand that he sits on death row because of his crime, there is no case precedent holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits his execution. See id at 14.

Conversely, Panetti’s legal team petitions for a broader interpretation of the “awareness” requirement. This argument focuses on the evidence that although Panetti is “aware” of the connection between his murders and his death sentence, he believes that he will be executed because of the state’s satanic conspiracy to thwart him from preaching. See Brief for Petitioner at 28-29. Because his schizophrenia prevents him from “rationally understanding” the true reasons for his execution, killing Panetti would be cruel and unusual. See id at 50. The crux of Panetti’s argument is that executing someone who possesses mere “awareness” but lacks “rational understanding” conflicts with recognized case law, defies normative standards of competency, and would constitute a purposeless killing. See Brief for Petitionerat 29-30. According to Panetti, executing a prisoner who lacks “rational understanding” fails to serve the retributive and deterrent functions of the death penalty because it does not allow the prisoner any opportunity to repent for his crime and to prepare for death. See id.

Organizations supporting legal rights for the mentally ill, including the National Association for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), the American Psychological Association, and the American Bar Association, support Panetti’s argument, urging the Supreme Court to establish a requisite level for “rational understanding” as opposed to mere “awareness.” NAMI, for example, argues that a mentally ill patient who “lacks ‘actual awareness’ lacks awareness, period.” Brief of Amicus Curiae on Behalf of NAMIat 14. Therefore, for the government to legally execute a prisoner, the prisoner must have the capacity to internalize his death sentence so that he understands and appreciates that the purpose of his execution is to pay back society for his crimes. See id at 15-16. Otherwise, executing the prisoner would lack retributive value. See id.

In deciding when a court may legally overturn a previous death sentence on the basis that the prisoner has become mentally incapable for execution purposes, the court will also tackle a larger policy question regarding which legal protections the mentally ill should be afforded. See e.g. Here the court may consider the extent to which the mentally ill are punished differently from the legally sane—a difference that some criticize as overly “paternalistic.” See id. This decision will not only affect the fates of future mentally ill prisoners, but may serve as a reflection of contemporary societal attitudes toward protecting the mentally ill.


The Ford v. Wainwright Standard for Executing the Mentally Ill

Prior to arriving at a decision in Panetti, the Supreme Court will reinterpret its decision in Ford v. Wainwright, currently the seminal case on executing the mentally ill. Ford, a death row inmate, did not initially display signs of mental illness during his trial or when he was sentenced to death by a Florida trial court. See Ford v. Wainwright477 U.S. 399, 401 (1986). However, Ford began to manifest symptoms of a severe mental disorder while in jail, becoming obsessed with the KKK, referring to himself as “Pope John Paul III,” and deluding several conspiracies against him. See id at 402. Although Ford knew that he was on death row, he did not believe that he would be executed because he “owned the prisons and could control the Governor through mind waves.” Id. Other evidence suggested that unlike Panetti, Ford was unable to recall the crime that he committed and did not know why he was on death row.

Ford’s lawyers were unsuccessful in petitioning the Florida Governor to overturn the death sentence on the basis of mental incompetence. See id. Hence, Ford sought federal habeas corpus review, petitioning the district court for an evidentiary hearing on the issue of his insanity. When denied this review in the lower court, Ford ultimately appealed up to the Supreme Court of the United States and argued that executing a legally insane prisoner would violate the Eighth Amendment and that he was entitled to an evidentiary review on the question of his insanity. See id at 404.

In determining whether executing a mentally ill prisoner is illegal, the Supreme Court conducted a thorough analysis of English and American common law as well as contemporary normative standards. See e.g. id at 408. The court found that the common law tradition has prohibited executing the mentally ill because it lacks a retributive purpose, finding that civilized societies possess a “natural abhorrence” toward killing a prisoner who lacks the “capacity to come to grips with his own conscience or deity,” and that this value “is still vivid today.” See id at 409. Hence, the court reversed the lower courts, finding that Ford was entitled to evidentiary review of his mental illness; and that if he were found to be insane, the Eighth Amendment would prohibit his execution. See id at 418.

Although the majority opinion did not establish a standard to determine a requisite level of insanity that a prisoner must display in order to have his death sentence repealed, Justice Powell addressed this issue in a concurring opinion. Powell noted that the death penalty can only be effective in punishing a prisoner if he understands its “existence and purpose.” See id at 421. If the prisoner is capable of understanding “the connection between his crime and punishment” then the underlying retributive goal of the criminal law would be satisfied. See id at 422. If the prisoner is unaware of the punishment and the reason for it, however, then executing him would be cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment. See id. Powell concluded that since Ford did not believe that he could be sentenced to death, he was sufficiently “unaware” under this standard and should not be executed. See id at 422-23.

Applying Ford to the facts in Panetti

In the case at hand, both Panetti and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice rely heavily on the reasoning from Powell’s concurrence in Ford to argue whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits Panetti’s execution.

Panetti argues that the lower court decisions which upheld his death sentence conflict with common law rules which prohibit executing the insane. See Brief for Petitioner at 29. Since Panetti believes that the true reason for his execution is a result of the “devil’s persecution for spreading the Gospels” and not “the State’s retribution for killing his wife’s parents,” his perception falls below the requisite level of awareness as established by Powell’s concurrence in Ford. See id at 32. Panetti’s basis for reading a “rational awareness” requirement into Powell’s standard flows largely from a recognition of the common law’s abhorrence of executing those who are too insane to repent for their sins and reconcile with God. See id at 34. Panetti additionally argues that contemporary normative standards prohibit killing those who lack rational awareness and that execution under such circumstances would lack a punitive purpose or retributive value. See id at 40, 44. Because Panetti’s mental illness makes it impossible to rationally comprehend the circumstances behind his execution, Panetti argues his execution would be cruel and unusual.

The Department first argues that federal jurisdiction does not exist in this case, citing the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) which prohibits a federal court from granting a writ of habeas corpus for a state case unless the state court’s decision was contrary to federal law or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. See Brief for Respondent at 7-8. The Department argues further that this is a highly deferential standard and since the state court’s decision to uphold the death sentence did not unreasonably apply federal law, there is no federal jurisdiction. See id at 9.

In their jurisdiction argument, the Department reasons that the state court decision did not misinterpret federal law because Panetti’s mental illness does not preclude him from execution under Powell’s awareness standard in Ford. See Brief for Respondent at 9. The Department further concludes that both the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas and the Fifth Circuit properly interpreted the Powell concurrence to mean that “awareness” does not require “rational understanding” by the prisoner. See id at 11. Since Panetti does understand that the State’s stated reason for his execution is because of the murder of his in-laws, he is sufficiently “able to ‘perceive the connection’ between his crime and his punishment” under Powell’s standard. See id at 12.


The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will further clarify the standard for executing the mentally ill as established by Powell’s concurrence in Ford. The court must determine whether the requirement that a mentally ill prisoner possess an “awareness” of his crime and execution also requires that the prisoner have a “rational understanding” of the connection between his crime and execution. The court may distinguish the mental condition of the prisoner in Ford as more severe than that of the prisoner in Panetti and that Panetti’s sentence should be upheld because he is aware of the stated reason for his death sentence. On the other hand, the court may find that case precedent would prohibit the execution of any prisoner who cannot fully appreciate and understand the true reasons for his execution.


Tim Birnbaum

Additional Sources

Law about…Death Penalty