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Panetti Briefs

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The "bottom side" briefs were filed today in Panetti v. Quarterman, the "too crazy to execute" case. Briefs on both sides are collected here. In a couple of ways, this is a case study in the hazards of constitutionalizing a generally agreed rule.

No one in this case disputes that an insane person may not be executed, just as no one disputed that in Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986). That was the rule at common law, and it was the law in all states with the death penalty well before Ford. The main issue in Ford was who decides whether a condemned inmate is insane and what process is due. However, Ford's transformation of that rule from a universally agreed principle of common and statutory law into a federal constitutional rule means that litigants are now expecting the United States Supreme Court to mark out the boundaries of who is actually "insane" for this purpose. The common law rule was vague, limited by the era's limited understanding of mental illness. (How limited? See The Madness of King George and be very glad you didn't live back then, even as king.)

If a rule is federal and constitutional, only the U.S. Supreme Court can authoritatively decide its boundaries. Standards set by legislatures, state high courts, and federal courts of appeals are only tentative pending a decision from Olympus. If the standard depends on changing scientific knowledge, the high court will need to revisit it occasionally. How many such rules are we going to have? How many can the law stand? For thirty years we have seen the turmoil in capital sentencing procedure law, as the high court first established broad outlines and then proceeded to micromanage the details, contradicting its prior decisions without squarely overruling them and spawning decades of confusion, overturned judgments, and multiple retrials of the same cases.

Is there a compelling case for not letting the states define "insanity" for execution, just as they do for substantive guilt? I don't see it. The core criteria are the ones the federal district court found met in this case. “Because the Court finds that Panetti knows he committed two murders, he knows he is to be executed, and he knows the reason the State has given for his execution is his commission of those murders, he is competent to be executed.” If a state wants to draw the circle of exemption broader than that as a matter of policy, fine. But those policy arguments should be addressed in legislation, which applies prospectively rather than holding up completed cases and which can be revised as our knowledge of the human mind goes forward.

But schizophrenia is a powerful mitigating circumstance, so why was Panetti sentenced to death in the first place? The blame here lies squarely at the Supreme Court's own doorstep. In Faretta v. California, 422 U. S. 806 (1975), the Court constitutionalized the rule of self-representation. Any defendant competent to waive his right to counsel must be allowed to represent himself, even if he is mentally incapable of mounting a competent defense. The Court should go back and fine-tune this rule to provide a zone of discretion to the trial judge between the minimum competence where a defendant may be allowed to represent himself and a higher level where he must be allowed to do so. But they haven't gotten around to it in three decades, so we have cases like this. Panetti exercised his constitutional right to be a fool, as Justice Blackmun noted in dissent, which is this case means a crazy fool. Panetti's standby counsel says, on page 26 of the Joint Appendix, that the trial was a mockery. It was judicial activism and unnecessary constitutionalization of rules of procedure that made it a mockery.

The ABA filed a brief in this case. It describes its membership as "more than 413,000 members includ[ing] prosecutors, public defenders, private lawyers, legislators, law professors, law enforcement and corrections personnel, law students, and non-lawyer 'associates' in allied fields." Notice how they always list prosecutors first? Yet the ABA appears in support of the defendant against the prosecution, as they always do. The brief itself is conclusory, citing little more than the ABA itself as authority. Why should the word of an organization that always takes one side against the other carry any weight at all?

6 Comments

I mostly agree with what you say, but wonder if the zone of discretion you mention may really take us down the road of "gradations of competency " per Godinez v. Moran , 509 U.S. 389 (1993). That, I fear, would really make trials a circus with experts arguing about abstract matters such as what "rationality" means and courts disagreeing about how many and what the differing standards of competency are constitutionally required.

From my perspective, there are two troubling things about the present case: First, Panetti was clearly incompetent, yet like the tragic People v. Tortorici, 92 NY2d 757 (1999), the trial court exhibited no courage in doing the right thing in a high-profile case by declaring the defendant incompetent in spite of Faretta. Second, the various amicus briefs for the petitioner are arguing that there is a constitutional requirement that one must have a rational understanding to receive punishment. This surely is a slippery road, as I can foresee many crafty arguments down the line that many folks can't be punished because they lack a rational understanding pertaining to their punishment. It is, after all, the rational aspect of competency, and not the factual one, where all of the disagreement already falls.

The issue is also risk allocation. Should we allow "breathing room" so that we're sure that incompetent folks cannot be executed or should he have a miserly approach so that no one "gets over" and so that the state is not unfairly hamstrung by these claims.

My view is that we should err on the side of executing the Panettis of the world. Harsh. But if the death penalty really does deter murder, then the mischief caused by the occasional Panetti is outweighed by the prevention of the deaths of innocents.

Kent well makes this point in his, as usual, excellent brief.

I agree that abstract disagreements about rationality should have no place in the determination of competency. However, I would like to see the Faretta rule relaxed to give the judge discretion to deny self-representation for a competent but mentally ill defendant based on the judge's assessment that he is incapable of representing himself.

That makes sense to me as well Kent. I wonder, though, if judges would use their newly found discretion since the pull is to get the case tried and done.

... that's the problem with competency matters in a sense. One can be incompetent for so long and there's no good way to predict when someone will become competent. Plus, the courts have a lukewarm feeling about involuntary medicating defendants with "mind altering drugs." See my paper:
http://ssrn.com/abstract=949229

Would a retreat from Faretta mean that courts would have to relax rules about defendants being the masters of their own defense?

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