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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Mitigating Evidence and Death Penalty

A leading case summary of Harvard Law Review: Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman (2007) and Brewer v. Quarterman (2007) (11 pages) The two cases were consolidated.

Eighth Amendment – Death Penalty – Consideration of Mitigating Evidence

The maxim that “death is different” has long guided the Supreme Court’s death penalty jurisprudence. In the landmark case of Lockett v. Ohio, a plurality of the Court declared that the Eighth Amendment mandates that a capital sentencing body be permitted to “consider[], as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendant’s character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death.” In Penry v. Lynaugh, the Court applied the Lockett principle to a death sentence under a Texas statute mandating death if the sentencing body found that the defendant had acted deliberately and was likely to be dangerous in the future. Under that statutory regime, the jury could not necessarily consider and give effect to the mitigating force of the defendant’s mental retardation and history of childhood abuse.

Last Term, in Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman and Brewer v. Quarterman, the Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of two defendants’ death sentences under that same statute. The Court held that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) had misapplied clearly established law by refusing to invalidate the sentences when the sentencers were not permitted to give meaningful effect to the defendants’mitigating evidence: childhood neglect and impulse-control disorder in Abdul-Kabir,9and mental illness, childhood abuse, and substance abuse in Brewer. The Court therefore concluded that under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), federal habeas relief was warranted.

At first sight, the decisions in Abdul-Kabir and Brewer seemed to signal a departure from precedents granting wide deference to state court decisions where the relevant clearly established law was broad and general. In fact, however, the law that the Court invoked in these cases was much narrower than the opinions superficially suggest. Therefore, the Court’s selection of a fact-specific, highly determinative holding as the relevant clearly established law explains how the strictness of the Court’s review of the CCA’s decisions is reconcilable with precedent.