West Law Report

Execution of the Presently Incompetent

A leading case summery of Harvard Law Review (Issue 121, Nov 2007): Panetti v. Quarterman (2007) (11 pages)

Eighth Amendment — Death Penalty — Execution of the Presently Incompetent

The Supreme Court’s capital punishment jurisprudence might be characterized as a struggle for coherence. Since its fractured ruling in Furman v. Georgia, however, the Court has achieved relative clarity at least on the proposition that capital punishment is intended to promote retribution and deterrence. In Ford v. Wainwright, the Court found that neither of these purposes is served by the execution of a prisoner who has become incapable of comprehending
the connection between his crime and his impending execution and that such executions are barred by the Eighth Amendment.

Last Term, in Panetti v. Quarterman, the Court held that the same logic applies to prisoners who can articulate this connection, but are so delusional that they are incapable of “rational[ly] understanding” it. This conclusion is not surprising, but in reiterating the arguments made in Ford, the Panetti Court revealed a troubling incoherence: the treatment of retribution and deterrence in Ford and Panetti is inconsistent with the Court’s prior treatment of these theories of punishment. Indeed, under a consistent interpretation of the Court’s accepted rationales for capital punishment, there may be no coherent way to distinguish between the execution of one who is competent and the execution of one who has lost his sanity. As such, Panetti highlights the possibility that the logical conclusion of our death penalty system is a result that, in the Court’s own words, “offends humanity.”

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