The Effect of Mental Competency in Death Penalty Cases
Prosecutors and Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, killed six people and injured 13 others in a shooting rampage at an Arizona political gathering, reached a plea deal in August 2012. Under the plea arrangement, Loughner pled guilty and agreed to life in prison.
While the plea spared the victims a lengthy, possibly traumatic death-penalty trial, the decision also made sense considering the evidence of the defendant’s schizophrenia. The federal judge found that while Loughner was competent to stand trial he would still need constant treatment to remain competent.
Precedents on competency in capital crimes
The U.S. Supreme Court in a 2002 case Atkins v. Virginia ruled that executing mentally retarded criminals is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, the high court left it up to each individual state to determine whether the prosecution or defense has the burden of proving a defendant’s mental health.
Now this past October, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a pair of cases about what to do when people convicted of capital crimes are mentally incompetent and so unable to help their lawyers with challenges to their convictions and sentences.
The lower courts in the two cases had imposed indefinite stays of the proceedings until the prisoners regained their mental competency. There appeared to be little support for those decisions among the justices of the court, as it could be easily used as a pretext to make sure the death penalty can be carried out.
Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out that the standard of showing the defendant is competent to be able to assist a lawyer is much tougher than showing competency to allow the execution — which in Scalia’s words is that the defendant is “aware of what is being done and why it’s being done.” Therefore, the stays imposed by the lower courts effectively overrode the execution standard.
Ohio’s solicitor general argued there is no basis for such stays in the Constitution or federal statutes. However, both the solicitor general and the lawyer representing the federal government conceded the courts should have some discretion to issue a limited stay.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added that there are not many prisoners who can show they are mentally incompetent. Justice Samuel Alito repeatedly asked what the starting point for a deadline would be, suggesting that efforts should be made to return inmates to mental competency as soon as possible.