Panetti v. Quarterman

127 S.CT. 2842
Brief Filed: 02/07
Court: United States Supreme Court
Year of Decision: 2007

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 146KB)


At issue in this case is the appropriate standard for determining the level of mental illness that should preclude execution, as well as the issue of how to define the factors that should be assessed in such a case

Index Topic

Death Penalty


Panetti was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of the parents of his estranged wife. In 2003, Panetti petitioned the Texas state court to determine his competency for execution. The court appointed a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist, who found Panetti competent because he knew that he would be executed and why the state believed he should be executed. Based on these reports, and without a hearing, the state court denied Panetti’s petition. Panetti petitioned the federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus in 2004. The district court found error in the state court’s failure to hold a competency hearing, pursuant to Ford v. Wainwright (a 1986 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the 8th Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause prohibits states from inflicting the death penalty upon a prisoner who is insane and set a standard for determining competency). The district court subsequently held an evidentiary hearing, at which four mental health experts testified on behalf of Panetti.

The district court observed that all of the experts agreed that Panetti suffered from some degree of mental illness, characterized by impaired cognitive processes and delusions, and consistent with schizoaffective disorder. Furthermore, Panetti consistently informed mental health professionals that he is to be executed for preaching the gospel. Nonetheless, the court concluded that Panetti satisfied the Ford standard for competency to be executed because he was aware of the fact that he was to be executed, and because he was aware that he committed the murders that served as the state’s justification for his execution.

Panetti argued on appeal to the Fifth Circuit that the district court employed the wrong legal standard to evaluate his competence to be executed. Panetti argued that Ford requires not only that he is aware of his impending execution and the reasons therefore, but that he also has a rational understanding of the reasons for the execution. Because Panetti believes the state’s official justification to be a cover for its intention to punish him for preaching the gospel, his counsel argued that he is incompetent to be executed.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Writing for a unanimous panel, Judge Garza followed “Barnard v. Collins, 13 F.3d 871 (5th Cir. 1994), a case nearly identical to the one at bar.” Panetti II, 448 F.3d at 819. In Barnard, the court held that the petitioner’s comprehension of the fact of and reasons for his execution rendered him competent for execution, notwithstanding his delusion that his execution was being orchestrated by “a conspiracy of Asians, Jews, Blacks, homosexuals, and the Mafia.”  13 F.3d at 876.

The Panetti court found that the Barnard interpretation of Ford satisfied Justice Powell’s concurrence, which has been adopted by the Fifth Circuit: “Justice Powell did not state that a prisoner must ‘rationally understand’ the reason for his execution, only that he must be ‘aware’ of it.” Panetti II, 448 F.3d at 819. The court held that Panetti’s awareness of the essential facts of his impending execution satisfied this test.

APA's Position

APA’s brief addressed: 1) individuals who, like Panetti, suffer from severe psychotic disorders frequently suffer from bizarre delusions that disrupt their understanding of reality; 2) they may be unable to appreciate truths obvious to others, such as the nature of the death penalty or causal connection between the criminal acts and punishment; 3) mental health professionals can reliably assist the courts in identifying prisoners with mental illness who suffer delusions that preclude them from understanding the actual reasons for their execution; and 4) mental health professionals routinely make reliable competency determinations in criminal cases.


The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Scott Panetti by a 5-4 vote, reversing the decision of the Fifth Circuit and remanding for further proceedings. The Court cited APA’s brief for the critically important point that mental health expert testimony can assist the courts in answering questions related to competency. It also followed the reasoning and arguments advanced in APA’s brief.