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Supreme Court Decision: Mental Illness & Death Penalty

June 28, 2007

Arlington, VA. — The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has praised today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court blocking the execution of a Texas man who suffers from severe mental illness.

In Panetti v. Quarterman, the court held that an individual’s understanding of the reasons why he or she is to be executed must be considered in determining whether application of the death penalty is constitutional—rather than merely understanding the link between execution and death. 

“For once, law has caught up with medical science,” said NAMI Director of Policy and Legal Affairs Ronald S. Honberg. “The circumstances of this case are tragic and no one minimizes the gravity of the crime or the suffering of the victims.  However, execution of someone who is profoundly ill would only compound the original tragedy and represent a profound injustice for us all.”

“Severe delusions mean severe illness. Rational understanding and judgment are severely compromised. Application of the death penalty becomes meaningless.”

NAMI previously filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the case with the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association.

The Supreme Court’s decision can be found at http://scotusblog.files.wordpress.com/2007/06/06-6407.pdf. The NAMI amicus brief is at www.nami.org/policy/panetti

Despite a long history of schizophrenia, Scott Panetti was allowed to represent himself at his trial on charges of murdering his parents-in-law 15 years ago. He frequently spoke irrationally and issued subpoenas to John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ, and Pope John Paul II before being sentenced to death.

Continuing to experience delusions and other symptoms of severe mental illness throughout incarceration on death row, Panetti believed his planned execution was part of an evil conspiracy between Texas and demonic forces to stop him from preaching the gospel.

 

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