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?
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 as Framed for the Court by the Parties
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?
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