Panetti v. Quarterman

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Opinion [Justice Kennedy]
Dissent [Justice Thomas]




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 06–6407. Argued April 18, 2007—Decided June 28, 2007

Petitioner was convicted of capital murder in a Texas state court and sentenced to death despite his well-documented history of mental illness. After the Texas courts denied relief on direct appeal, petitioner filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §2254, but the District Court and the Fifth Circuit rejected his claims, and this Court denied certiorari. In the course of these initial state and federal proceedings, petitioner did not argue that mental illness rendered him incompetent to be executed. Once the state trial court set an execution date, petitioner filed a motion under Texas law claiming, for the first time, that he was incompetent to be executed because of mental illness. The trial judge denied the motion without a hearing and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed petitioner’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction..

He then filed another federal habeas petition under §2254, and the District Court stayed his execution to allow the state trial court time to consider evidence of his then-current mental state. Once the state court began its adjudication, petitioner submitted 10 motions in which he requested, inter alia, a competency hearing and funds for a mental health expert. The court indicated it would rule on the outstanding motions once it had received the report written by the experts that it had appointed to review petitioner’s mental condition. The experts subsequently filed this report, which concluded, inter alia, that petitioner had the ability to understand the reason he was to be executed. Without ruling on the outstanding motions, the judge found petitioner competent and closed the case. Petitioner then returned to the Federal District Court, seeking a resolution of his pending §2254 petition. The District Court concluded that the state-court competency proceedings failed to comply with Texas law and were constitutionally inadequate in light of the procedural requirements mandated by Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U. S. 399, 410, where this Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits States from inflicting the death penalty upon insane prisoners. Although the court therefore reviewed petitioner’s incompetency claim without deferring to the state court’s finding of competency, it nevertheless granted no relief, finding that petitioner had not demonstrated that he met the standard for incompetency. Under Fifth Circuit precedent, the court explained, petitioner was competent to be executed so long as he knew the fact of his impending execution and the factual predicate for it. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.


1. This Court has statutory authority to adjudicate the claims raised in petitioner’s second federal habeas application. Because §2244(b)(2) requires that “[a] claim presented in a second or successive … [§2254] application … that was not presented in a prior application … be dismissed,” the State maintains that the failure of petitioner’s first §2254 application to raise a Ford-based incompetency claim deprived the District Court of jurisdiction. The results this argument would produce show its flaws. Were the State’s interpretation of “second or successive” correct, a prisoner would have two options: forgo the opportunity to raise a Ford claim in federal court; or raise the claim in a first federal habeas application even though it is premature. Stewart v. Martinez-Villareal, 523 U. S. 637, 644. The dilemma would apply not only to prisoners with mental conditions that, at the time of the initial habeas filing, were indicative of incompetency but also to all other prisoners, including those with no early sign of mental illness. Because all prisoners are at risk of deteriorations in their mental state, conscientious defense attorneys would be obliged to file unripe (and, in many cases, meritless) Ford claims in each and every §2254 application. This counterintuitive approach would add to the burden imposed on courts, applicants, and the States, with no clear advantage to any. The more reasonable interpretation of §2244, suggested by this Court’s precedents, is that Congress did not intend the provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) addressing “second or successive” habeas petitions to govern a filing in the unusual posture presented here: a §2254 application raising a Ford-based incompetency claim filed as soon as that claim is ripe. See, e.g., Martinez-Villareal, supra, at 643–645. This conclusion is confirmed by AEDPA’s purposes of “further[ing] comity, finality, and federalism,” Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U. S. 322, 337, “promot[ing] judicial efficiency and conservation of judicial resources, … and lend[ing] finality to state court judgments within a reasonable time,” Day v. McDonough, 547 U. S. 198, 205–206. These purposes, and the practical effects of the Court’s holdings, should be considered when interpreting AEDPA, particularly where, as here, petitioners “run the risk” under the proposed interpretation of “forever losing their opportunity for any federal review of their unexhausted claims,” Rhines v. Weber, 544 U. S. 269, 275. There is, finally, no argument in this case that petitioner proceeded in a manner that could be considered an abuse of the writ. Cf. Felker v. Turpin, 518 U. S. 651, 664. To the contrary, the Court has suggested that it is generally appropriate for a prisoner to wait before seeking the resolution of unripe incompetency claims. See, e.g., Martinez-Villareal, supra, at 644–645. Pp. 9–15.

2. The state court failed to provide the procedures to which petitioner was entitled under the Constitution. Ford identifies the measures a State must provide when a prisoner alleges incompetency to be executed. Justice Powell’s opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment in Ford controls, see Marks v. United States, 430 U. S. 188, 193, and constitutes “clearly established” governing law for AEDPA purposes, §2254(d)(1). As Justice Powell elaborated, once a prisoner seeking a stay of execution has made “a substantial threshold showing of insanity,” 477 U. S., at 424, the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments entitle him to, inter alia, a fair hearing, ibid., including an opportunity to submit “expert psychiatric evidence that may differ from the State’s own psychiatric examination,” id., at 427. The procedures the state court provided petitioner were so deficient that they cannot be reconciled with any reasonable interpretation of the Ford rule. It is uncontested that petitioner made a substantial showing of incompetency. It is also evident from the record, however, that the state court reached its competency determination without holding a hearing or providing petitioner with an adequate opportunity to provide his own expert evidence. Moreover, there is a strong argument that the court violated state law by failing to provide a competency hearing. If so, the violation undermines any reliance the State might now place on Justice Powell’s assertion that “the States should have substantial leeway to determine what process best balances the various interests at stake.” Id., at 427. Under AEDPA, a federal court may grant habeas relief, as relevant, only if a state court’s “adjudication of [a] claim on the merits … resulted in a decision that … involved an unreasonable application” of the relevant federal law. §2254(d)(1). If the state court’s adjudication is dependent on an antecedent unreasonable application of federal law, that requirement is satisfied, and the federal court must then resolve the claim without the deference AEDPA otherwise requires. See, e.g., Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U. S. 510, 534. Having determined that the state court unreasonably applied Ford when it accorded petitioner the procedures in question, this Court must now consider petitioner’s claim on the merits without deferring to the state court’s competency finding. Pp. 15–21.

3. The Fifth Circuit employed an improperly restrictive test when it considered petitioner’s claim of incompetency on the merits. Pp. 21–28..

(a) The Fifth Circuit’s incompetency standard is too restrictive to afford a prisoner Eighth Amendment protections. Petitioner’s experts in the District Court concluded that, although he claims to understand that the State says it wants to execute him for murder, his mental problems have resulted in the delusion that the stated reason is a sham, and that the State actually wants to execute him to stop him from preaching. The Fifth Circuit held, based on its earlier decisions, that such delusions are simply not relevant to whether a prisoner can be executed so long as he is aware that the State has identified the link between his crime and the punishment to be inflicted. This test ignores the possibility that even if such awareness exists, gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put that awareness in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose. It is also inconsistent with Ford, for none of the principles set forth therein is in accord with the Fifth Circuit’s rule. Although the Ford opinions did not set forth a precise competency standard, the Court did reach the express conclusion that the Constitution “places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life of an insane prisoner,” 477 U. S., at 405, because, inter alia, such an execution serves no retributive purpose, id., at 408. It might be said that capital punishment is imposed because it has the potential to make the offender recognize at last the gravity of his crime and to allow the community as a whole, including the victim’s surviving family and friends, to affirm its own judgment that the prisoner’s culpability is so serious that the ultimate penalty must be sought and imposed. Both the potential for this recognition and the objective of community vindication are called into question, however, if the prisoner’s only awareness of the link between the crime and the punishment is so distorted by mental illness that his awareness of the crime and punishment has little or no relation to the understanding shared by the community as a whole. A prisoner’s awareness of the State’s rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it. Ford does not foreclose inquiry into the latter. To refuse to consider evidence of this nature is to mistake Ford’s holding and its logic. Pp. 21–28..

(b) Although the Court rejects the Fifth Circuit’s standard, it does not attempt to set down a rule governing all competency determinations. The record is not as informative as it might be because it was developed by the District Court under the rejected standard, and, thus, this Court finds it difficult to amplify its conclusions or to make them more precise. It is proper to allow the court charged with overseeing the development of the evidentiary record the initial opportunity to resolve petitioner’s constitutional claim. Pp. 28–30.

448 F. 3d 815, reversed and remanded.

Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Roberts, C.J., and Scalia and Alito, JJ., joined.

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