Two capital cases are before the SCOTUS this week.
The more important of the two, at least for the overwhelming majority of practitioners, is Uttecht v. Brown which concerns jury death qualification. The transcripts in Brown suggest a very close vote count with Justice Kennedy likely being the swing vote. His questioning suggests he could is straddling the fence. Washington State Assistant Attorney General John Samson and Michael Dreeben, Assistant to the Solicitor General, gave the warden a real chance in a case previously predicted to lean towards Brown.
Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute Bulletin, Kelly Cooke & Heidi Guetschow preview the capital case here. Ross Runkel has this preview and prediction at the Supreme Court Times. Here, the Death Penalty Information Center gives a brief synopsis of the jury selection case.
SCOTUSblog previews Wednesday’s oral argument in Panetti v. Quarterman in a post titled “Eighth Amendment and insanity.”
In the one-hour oral argument scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. in Panetti v. Quarterman (06-6407), the Court will be examining a variety of formulations of “insanity” in the Eighth Amendment context. (The Court may also spend some time discussing with counsel whether Panetti’s case should be dismissed — an issue the Court raised belatedly. This blog discussed that aspect of the case is a post that can be found here; that issue will not be further explored in this post.)
Scott Louis Panetti has a lengthy history of mental impairment. His lawyer, in fact, told the Court that “evidence of incompetency runs like a fissure through every proceeding in this case.” As his lawyer further expressed it, “Panetti is a captive to a malfunctioning brain that cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined…The hallmark of Mr. Panetti’s condition is his psychotic delusion of religion persecution. Mr. Panetti believes that demonic forces, in league with the state of Texas, have orchestrated his execution in a final effort to prevent him from preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” He “is in the grip of a delusion that puts his execution at the center of his irrational beliefs,” the merits brief added.
The Fifth Circuit Court, however, has found him competent to be executed. In that Court’s view, applying its own Circuit precedent, Panetti need not “rationally understand” why he would be executed; he need only be “aware” that he is to be executed for his crime — murdering his wife’s parents as she and their child stood by. He has that awareness, the Circuit Court found. He was found competent earlier to stand trial; he defended himself at the trial, with occasional flights of fancy and delusion and meandering questioning and testimony. His appeal does not challenge his conviction nor the sentence of death; it contends only that he is too mentally ill to be executed at present.
Arguing for Panetti on Wednesday will be Gregory W. Wiercioch of San Francisco through an affiliation with the Texas Defender Service. Texas will be represented by its state Solicitor General, R. Ted Cruz.
Howard Bashman rounds up the previews of Panetti noting:
“Does death penalty ever apply to those found insane? The US Supreme Court hears Wednesday the case of a killer who may not grasp the tie between his crime and his punishment.” Warren Richey will have this article Wednesday in The Christian Science Monitor.The Daily Texan today contains an article headlined “Victims await final verdict; Supreme Court will hear convicted killer’s last appeal tomorrow.”
The Houston Chronicle yesterday contained an article headlined “What if killer can’t grasp meaning of execution? U.S. high court asked to define insanity in case of Texas man.”
The San Antonio Express-News reported yesterday that “Justices to eye Texas death case.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sunday contained an article headlined “Is Wisconsin native too mentally ill to execute? Supreme Court decision could be groundbreaking.”
Kent Scheidegger, as always, has a slightly different view. Orin Kerr notes in all three decisions the Supreme Court handed down today, Justice Scalia and Justice Alito came down on opposite sides; expect to see more on Wednesday of the strange lineups of the Court’s noncriminal decisions on Tuesday.