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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  2. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  3. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  4. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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