ILNews

SCOTUS blocks execution

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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The Supreme Court of the United States decided today that a Texas man is considered mentally ill and should not be put to death.

With that much-anticipated decision, Indiana's top jurists will now use that case to decide the fate of a New Albany man convicted of shooting a state trooper in 1993.

In January, the Indiana Supreme Court halted the execution of Norman Timberlake to await word from the nation's highest court on the similar case from Texas. Our justices disagreed on the delay, issuing a 3-2 decision that was the second time in a month they'd disagreed on this particular case and the underlying issue. They decided to wait because the Texas case could change the standard for executing mentally ill inmates and revise the legal definition of "insanity" or "mental illness."

"Timberlake's execution may prove to be prohibited by the Eighth Amendment," the Indiana justices wrote in the order. "We grant a stay to prevent learning the answer to that question after it is too late."

Today's decision from a divided SCOTUS paves the way for the potential block of Timberlake's execution.

The federal court ruled 5-4 in the case of Panetti v. Quarterman, No. 06-6407, which reverses the Court of Appeals and remands it for further proceedings. A 35-page majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, with which Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the 21-page dissent, with which Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito concurred.

The SCOTUS considered whether it violates a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment to execute a delusional inmate who does not understand why he is being put to death. Scott Louis Panetti is on death row in Texas for murdering his wife's parents in 1992. His attorneys argued that Panetti is mentally ill and suffers from delusional beliefs that the state was "in league with the forces of evil to prevent him from preaching the Gospel."

In today's ruling, Justice Kennedy wrote that the lower courts should have considered this argument. The majority relied on a 1986 case that held the Eighth Amendment prohibits a state from carrying out a death sentence upon an insane prisoner.

"The prohibition applies despite a prisoner's earlier competency to be held responsible for committing a crime and to be tried for it," the court held. "Prior findings of competency do not foreclose a prisoner from proving he is incompetent to be executed because of his present mental condition."

In its analysis of Panetti's argument, Justice Kennedy wrote, "A prisoner's awareness of the State's rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it. Petitioner's submission is that he suffers from a severe, documented mental illness that is the source of gross delusions preventing him from comprehending the meaning and purpose of the punishment to which he has been sentenced. This argument, we hold, should have been considered."

But dissenting justices wrote the majority is imposing a "new standard for determining incompetency."

"By contrast, the Court's approach today - settling upon a preferred outcome without resort to the law - is foreign to the judicial role as I know it," Justice Thomas wrote. "Because the Court's ruling misinterprets AEDPA (the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996), refuses to defer to the state court as AEDPA requires, and rejects the Court of Appeals' approach without any constitutional analysis, I respectfully dissent."

Indianapolis attorney Brent Westerfeld, who is representing Timberlake, could not be reached following today's SCOTUS opinion, but he said earlier this morning that he was anxiously awaiting the ruling to see how Timberlake's case might proceed.

The Indiana Supreme could rule on the Timberlake case anytime, but it will likely come later this summer or in the fall. The court could issue a decision, ask for supplemental briefs to further consider the case, or schedule oral arguments before making a decision.
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