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Courts weighing execution, mental illness

January 1, 2007
Execution and the mentally ill continue to be topics before the courts.

The Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments Wednesday in Panetti v. Quarterman, No. 06-640, a Texas case that asks 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.

That case is one that Indiana Supreme Court justices are closely watching to decide how they ;ll handle a condemned man ;s mental illness claims here.

Arguments are set for 1 p.m. but could be moved to the morning because another case is being dismissed.

In Panetti, the justices are considering the legal definition of "insanity" or "mental illness" as it applies to death row inmates having a factual awareness for the reason they are being executed. However, the justices might be changing how they look at the case, issuing an order this month for additional briefs on the question: "Must petitioner ;s habeas application be dismissed as ‘second or successive ; pursuant to 28 U.S. C. §§2244?"

As the case could change how the mentally ill are executed, Indiana justices decided in January to postpone the execution of Norman Timberlake – convicted in the 1993 shooting death of a state trooper – to see how the higher court rules. A decision is expected this summer.

But there ;s no need to wait. The Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments this morning in State v. McManus, 82S00-0503-PD-78, which involves death row inmate Paul McManus from Evansville. His attorney, Joanna Green, argued that he is ineligible for execution because he was mentally retarded when he killed his wife and two young daughters in 2001. Last spring, Vanderburgh Senior Judge William Brune decided that McManus should spend life in prison instead of being executed.

Now, the state is asking the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty.

Judge Brune's decision agreed with the defense on one point: finding McManus fit the legal definition of mental retardation – and the law forbids executing the retarded. Though McManus had a below-average IQ, the prosecutor and the defendant ;s original defense attorney questioned whether McManus met the legal criteria in Indiana for mental retardation. His defense did not claim it in the original trial.

Justices grilled Green today about why at post-conviction she didn ;t raise claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel and what statues should apply to this case. A glimpse into Timberlake-thought and the larger issue surfaced at times, as when justices asked about how mental retardation is diagnosed and what it means for executions.

State attorney James Martin argued that applicable law at the time didn ;t allow another proceeding and that the trial counsel strategy was not flawed.
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