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Friday, June 02, 2006

The next big question in death penalty law

The New York Times published an article Friday about mental illness and the death penalty. It concerns Scott Panetti, who was "in and out of mental institutions 14 times and addicted to drugs and alcohol since he almost drowned as a child and was nearly electrocuted by a power line, Panetti wore cowboy costumes to court, delivered rambling monologues, put himself on the witness stand and sought to subpoena the pope, Jesus and President Kennedy." There doesn't seem to be much controversy about whether Panetti is mentally ill. The question to be decided is if he is insane "enough" that executing him would violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against executing the insane. Read the Times article and decide for yourself.

Scott Panetti, a death row inmate, understands that the state says it means to execute him for the murder of his wife's parents.

But Panetti, 48, who represented himself in court despite a long history of mental illness, says he thinks that the state's real reason is a different one. He says the State of Texas, 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?

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