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Federal appeals court orders medical evaluation of mentally ill death row inmate

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] ordered [opinion, PDF] Tuesday that a Texas death-row inmate must be provided funds to build a defense against his impending execution. The decision comes two years after the court stayed the execution to consider an appeal that was filed on the grounds that the defendant was denied appointed counsel and funding to hire a mental health expert. Scott Panetti was convicted by the state of Texas for shooting and killing his wife's parents in 1992. Panetti, who has been institutionalized for schizophrenia, insisted on representing himself at trial. During trial [Reuters report] he often spoke incoherently and sought to call on John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ as defense witnesses. He appealed his conviction and death sentence on incompentency claims, but the Texas Court of Criminal appeals denied his application. The Court of Appeals vacated his conviction and remanded the case back to district court to "determine afresh Panetti's competency to be executed." The opinion concluded, "Delivery of the process due protects the prisoner and in doing so protects us all."

Recently the death penalty has been a pressing issue across the country. Earlier this month William Morva was executed by lethal injection [JURIST report] after supporters failed to convince Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to grant him clemency because of a mental illness. Also that week Florida Governor Rick Scott scheduled [JURIST report] the execution of Mark Asay which will be the state's first execution in nearly two years. The execution of death row inmates in Florida had been halted after their sentencing procedure was deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. In June a federal appeals court reversed [JURIST report] a lower court decision and found Ohio's execution protocol to be constitutional. In that same week a federal judge ordered [JURIST report] major changes to Arizona death penalty procedures due to prisoner complaints. Earlier in June the US Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] that psychiatric assistance must be provided for indigent defendants sentenced to the death penalty. In May the Delaware House of Representatives passed a bill [JURIST report] that would reinstate the death penalty. Florida's new bill [JURIST report] declaring that the death penalty may only be imposed by a judge upon unanimous recommendation from the jury was signed into law in March. In January the US Supreme Court refused [JURIST report] to consider a challenge to Alabama's death penalty system.

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