Death Penalty Jurisprudence: “Panetti v. Quarterman”

Note: In similar fashion to our methods in reviewing Ford v. Wainwright, we will limit our discussion on a number of the points in the Court’s opinion as they do not specifically pertain to our upcoming decision in Madison.

Last month, we reviewed the Supreme Court’s decision in Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986), a capital punishment case from 1986 in which the Court found executing the insane “cruel and unusual” under the Eighth Amendment. Ford is also one of the cases directly referenced in the first question presented in our case for October Term 2018, Madison v. Alabama. The other case implicated in Madison is Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007), a capital punishment case decided in 2007 that discussed a strikingly similar question to those presented in Madison. As a result, we now review the Supreme Court’s decision in Panetti.


Case Background

In 1992, Scott Louis Panetti woke before dawn, donned a camouflage outfit, and drove to the home of his estranged wife’s parents. Panetti broke the front door lock and proceeded to shoot and kill his father- and mother-in-law in full view of his wife and daughter. He then took his wife and daughter hostage for the day and through the night before finally turning himself in.

Panetti was tried for capital murder in 1995 and the court ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. The evaluation indicated that Panetti “suffered from a fragmented personality, delusions, and hallucinations.” The evaluation further noted that Panetti had been prescribed powerful antipsychotics for nearly the past decade. Panetti’s wife recounted an episode in 1986 in which he became convinced that Satan had possessed their home. He asserted that the only way to “cleanse their surroundings” was to participate in rituals and bury valuables in the yard.

Panetti sought to represent himself at trial and claimed he was not guilty by reason of insanity. During the proceedings, Panetti’s stand-by counsel noted that Panetti’s behavior was “bizarre, scary, and trance-like.” Nonetheless, the jury found Panetti guilty of capital murder and sentenced him to death.

After unsuccessful petitions for habeas corpus relief, Judge Stephen B. Ables set Panetti’s execution date for February 5, 2004. In response, Panetti’s counsel filed a motion in which Panetti claimed, for the first time, that he was incompetent to be executed due to mental illness. Judge Ables denied the motion without a hearing and, on appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed the motion. Panetti then filed in the federal court another writ of habeas corpus and a motion for a stay of execution. The district court granted the stay so that the Texas state court could consider evidence of Panetti’s mental state.

In the meantime, Panetti filed ten additional motions, including requests for a competency hearing in accordance with Ford v. Wainwright’s due process requirements and funds to hire a mental health expert.

However, the Texas state court denied two of the ten motions and abruptly appointed two of its own mental health experts, indicating it would rule on the remaining eight motions once its experts had evaluated Panetti. After their evaluation was complete, the court-appointed mental health experts concluded that Panetti “knows that he is to be executed, that his execution will result in his death, and that he has the ability to understand the reason he is to be executed.” Most disturbingly, however, they further concluded that Panetti’s bizarre, trance-like, and uncooperative behavior was a work of “fabrication.” Specifically, the experts stated that “Mr. Panetti deliberately and persistently chose to control and manipulate our interview situation.”

Panetti’s counsel immediately objected to the mental health experts’ findings and pressed four points of argumentation. First, the court-appointed experts’ processes and conclusions were both inadequate and incorrect. Second, it is necessary for the court to grant Panetti the funds to hire his own mental health experts. Third, the court needed to rule on the eight outstanding motions and grant the competency hearing. And fourth, the adjudicatory process in general was constitutionally inadequate thus far under Ford.

In response, the court simply closed the case.

The court’s doing so inevitably led to habeas petitions in the federal court, and the case was eventually granted certiorari by the Supreme Court. Once granted, the question presented before the Court was whether the Eighth Amendment permits the execution of an inmate who has a factual awareness of the State’s stated reason for his execution, but who lacks, due to a mental illness, a rational understanding of the State’s justification. This is, naturally, very similar to the questions presented in our forthcoming case, Madison v. Alabama.


Justice Kennedy’s Narrow Majority

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a 5:4 majority, left that question on the merits unanswered. Kennedy held that: (1) the Supreme Court does have jurisdiction to rule because the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)’s bar on “second and successive” habeas corpus applications does not apply to a Ford-based inadequacy claim when the claim was brought when it was first ripe; (2) the Texas state court failed to afford Panetti a “constitutionally adequate opportunity to be heard” under Ford; and (3) the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit employed too restrictive a test under Ford when it found Panetti competent for execution. In justifying his reason for not ruling on the merits, Kennedy espoused that it would be prudent to give the U.S. District Court (who oversees the development of the case’s evidentiary record) the first opportunity to do so.

After recounting the factual background of the case, Kennedy begins his opinion by affirming the Court’s jurisdiction over the case. We limit our discussion here as the case’s jurisdictional matters are not relevant to Madison. In short, the AEDPA’s bar on “second and successive” applications is inapplicable to a Ford-based inadequate-to-be-executed claim filed when the claim was first ripe, even if it was brought in an AEDPA application.

Kennedy then discusses Panetti’s Ford-based claim itself, as well as how the Court should rule on the merits procedurally, given the “deference to state court” provisions in the AEDPA. Briefly, for the former, Kennedy asserted that the Texas state court failed to give Panetti a “constitutionally adequate opportunity to be heard” pursuant to Ford because the state court did not allow him to submit any psychiatric evaluations as “counterweight” to the reports submitted by the two court-appointed experts. For the latter, Kennedy determined for two reasons that the Court will consider Panetti’s claim on the merits without deferring to the state court. First, Texas’ fact-finding procedures were “not adequate for reaching reasonably correct results” under Ford. And second, the process by which the state court determined Panetti’s competency was “seriously inadequate for the ascertainment of the truth,” again under Ford.

Kennedy then begins to discuss Panetti’s claim on the merits. First, Kennedy uses testimony from the District Court proceedings to illuminate Panetti’s actual mental condition. Kennedy notes that one expert concluded Panetti suffered from “schizo-affective disorder,” which resulted in Panetti having a “genuine delusion” as to why he is being executed. For example, during testimony, Panetti stated that the execution is “part of spiritual warfare . . . between the demons and the forces of darkness, and God and the angels and the forces of light.” Panetti further claimed that he understood that Texas said it is executing him for murder but argued that reason is a “sham.” In truth, Panetti stated that Texas actually wants to execute him “to stop him from preaching.” In other words, Panetti understood Texas’ stated reason for his execution but truly believed he was being executed for an entirely different, fictitious reason.

In the case below, the Fifth Circuit held that Panetti’s delusions could not render him incompetent because he met Ford’s threshold for a simple “awareness” of an impending execution. Kennedy, however, wrote that the Fifth Circuit’s holding “rests on a flawed interpretation of Ford.” Kennedy acknowledged that the Court in Ford declined to create a precise standard to determine competency to be executed. It did conclude, however, that the Constitution “places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life of an insane prisoner.” Justice Marshall’s majority opinion in Ford held that the Eighth Amendment precludes the execution of a prisoner who cannot understand either the reason for his execution or its implications because of a mental illness. Further, Justice Powell’s concurrence held that the Eighth Amendment “forbids the execution only of those who are unaware of the punishment they are to suffer and why they are to suffer it.”

The Fifth Circuit read Ford insofar as it allows a prisoner to be executed if he simply states the reason for his execution. The Fifth Circuit therefore treated Panetti’s delusions as irrelevant to his competency. This, Kennedy argued, is an incorrect reading of Ford.

Kennedy countered that Ford does not treat delusions as irrelevant, especially if they are so powerful as to prevent a prisoner from “reach[ing] a rational understanding of the reason for the execution.” For example, Ford cites the value of retribution as a valid reason for administering the death penalty. Kennedy drove this point home, asserting that:

The potential for a prisoner’s recognition of the severity of the offense and the objective of community vindication are called into question, however, if the prisoner’s mental state is so distorted by a mental illness that his awareness of the crime and punishment has little or no relation to the understanding of those concepts shared by the community as a whole.

Kennedy further argued that there is “no support” anywhere in Ford for the idea that a prisoner is “automatically foreclosed from demonstrating incompetence” once a court has determined that he can simply recognize the court’s stated reason for his execution. In essence, “[a] prisoner’s awareness of the State’s rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it.” Kennedy wraps up his argument by recognizing that severe delusions resulting from a mental illness “may put an awareness of a link between a crime and its punishment in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose.”

Despite his intricate survey of the fallacies of the Fifth Circuit’s decision, Kennedy maintains that the Court will not outline a standard adjudicating all competency determinations, and thus will not rule on the merits. In taking this stance, Kennedy cites both the ambiguity and the lack of detail in the case’s record. He further acknowledges the Court’s “hesitan[cy] to decide a question of this complexity” before the lower courts have more clearly addressed the severity of a prisoner’s mental ailments in this context. In a poignant paragraph, Kennedy expresses hope that expert evidence will, in the future, “clarify the extent to which severe delusions may render a subject’s perception so distorted that he should be deemed incompetent.”

Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer joined Justice Kennedy on the opinion.


A Dissent in Every Way

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, disagreed with the majority opinion on all three points: first, Panetti’s claim “undisputedly does not meet the [AEDPA’s] requirements for filling a ‘second or successive’ habeas application”; second, the Supreme Court ought to have deferred to the Texas state court’s findings of competency; and third, the majority opinion addresses a new standard of incompetency determinations “without undertaking even a cursory Eighth Amendment analysis.”

Thomas begins his dissent by discussing Panetti’s supposed “second or successive” AEDPA claim. We limit our discussion here. In brief, Thomas argues that “neither [the] AEDPA’s text, pre-AEDPA precedent, nor our AEDPA jurisprudence supports the Court’s understanding of ‘second or successive.’” Further, Thomas opined that the Court’s “judicial economy” concerns—that Thomas’ dissent would result in the ability for every prisoner to arbitrarily raise and carry Ford-based relief claims shielding them from the possibility that they might lose their sanity and competency—is unfounded and “would not be the catastrophe the court suggests.” Therefore, Panetti’s Ford claim should be dismissed as “second or successive” under the plain text of the AEDPA.

Thomas then disagrees with the Court’s decision not to defer to the state court’s competency determination. In short, Thomas argues that the Texas court did apply Ford’s procedural analysis reasonably and that the state court’s findings of competency were valid. As a result, Panetti should not be afforded federal habeas relief since the Court ought to have deferred to the valid state court’s findings.

Finally, Thomas attempts to break down the Court’s discussion on the merits. Citing his previous first two points, Thomas first clarifies that he does not wish to rule on whether the Fifth Circuit’s standard for determining insanity is substantively correct. He does, however, condemn the majority opinion’s answer to that question (that the Fifth Circuit employed an incorrect interpretation of Ford). He primarily bases this contention on the ground that the Court, without performing any Eighth Amendment analysis, also misinterprets Ford and uses that interpretation to improperly devolve future decisions on the district courts.

Thomas begins by contending that the standard presented in Ford is inapplicable to Panetti’s claim. In Ford, only Justice Powell’s concurrence outlined an insanity standard (see Ford, 477 U.S. at 422), one that dealt only with actual knowledge of a death sentence, not an understanding of it (as is the case with Panetti’s circumstance). Put differently, “nothing in any of the Ford opinions,” Thomas says, “addresses what to do when a prisoner knows the reason for his execution but does not rationally understand it.”

In its previous decision, the Fifth Circuit used the language of Justice Powell’s concurrence to determine that, in order to be executed, Panetti need only have an awareness of his death sentence. This determination, of course, was struck down by the majority opinion, which deemed it “inconsistent with the spirit of Ford.” However, Thomas argues that the majority opinion’s “expansive interpretation” of the word “aware” in Ford is tenuous, since Ford neither sought to define “aware,” nor addressed whether a prisoner’s delusions affect his awareness “in a constitutionally relevant manner.” Thus, Thomas maintains that the only logical conclusion from the majority opinion is that it purports to require, for the first time, “rational understanding” for Eighth Amendment protection.

To conclude, Thomas shifts to the lack of Eighth Amendment analysis in the majority opinion, lambasting not only its inherent lack of doing so but also its deliberately avoiding to do so. He notes that the majority opinion does not follow the Court’s traditional modes of adjudicating Eighth Amendment cases and asserts that the majority opinion “likely avoided undertaking this analysis because there is no evidence [in the Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence] to support its opinion.”

In sum, since the majority opinion misinterprets the language of the AEDPA, does not defer to the Texas state court’s findings under the AEDPA, and rejects the Fifth Circuit’s ruling based on a flawed reading of Ford, Justice Thomas dissents.

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