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Lines that We Shouldn’t Be Drawing

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Another big day at the Supreme Court today. In addition to striking down a school racial integration plan (maybe Scott will say more on this. I’m disgusted but not surprised), the Court also struck down the death penalty in the case of a man whose attorneys claim he is mentally ill (PDF). From today’s LA Times:

The Supreme Court today blocked the execution of a Texas killer whose lawyers argued that he should not be put to death because he is mentally ill.

Scott Louis Panetti shot his in-laws to death 15 years ago in front of his wife and young daughter.

Panetti knows what he did, but believes that he is on death row because he preaches the word of God, his lawyers say.

Panetti’s lawyers wanted the court to determine that people who cannot understand the connection between their crime and punishment because of mental illness may not be executed.

So the Supreme Court — in an opinion by Kennedy (somewhat surprisingly) — said that the Texas court that sentenced Panetti applied too restrictive a test for incompetency, and sent the case back down to be reviewed (not quite a lifting of the death sentence, but close). Thomas wrote a dissent, joined by Roberts, Alito and Scalia. No surprise there.

The case is good news. But what strikes me is not that the Roberts court actually made a good decision, but rather that we are splitting these hairs at all. Even the “good” capital decision cases for me provide further evidence that we shouldn’t have capital punishment at all.

Panetti, who thinks that God speaks to him, is probably sane by some standards (and some community mores). People can be medicated into sanity. Should we execute them then? What if someone understands what they did, but little else? Should we execute them then? Determining competency is difficult enough when capital punishment is not on the line. Many states have so narrowly defined incompetency that people are exceedingly rarely found to satisfy the criteria. Allowing executions of anyone — but especially of people who squeak into sanity by a hair — doesn’t make us a safer society. Just a less humane one.

UPDATE BY SL: Non-pdf link here.

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