The Yale Law Journal


Roundup: Recent Developments in Criminal Justice and Mental Health Law

19 Dec 2014

Over the past few weeks, several major developments have occurred at the intersection of criminal justice and mental health law. This Roundup briefly summarizes these matters and discusses how each reflects current trends in the criminal justice system’s approach to individuals with mental health problems.

On November 25, 2014, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in City & County of San Francisco v. Sheehan.1 One of the issues presented is whether the Americans with Disabilities Act requires law enforcement to accommodate suspects whom they know to be mentally ill, but who are armed and violent. The case concerns San Francisco police officers who attempted to transport Teresa Sheehan, a mentally ill woman, from her group home to a mental health facility for an involuntary seventy-two-hour evaluation.2 Sheehan reacted violently when the officers entered her home, grabbing a knife and threatening to kill them; the officers shot her “five or six times.”3 Sheehan survived and brought a civil suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

On December 3, 2014, the Fifth Circuit stayed the execution of Scott Panetti, a man on death row in Texas who has mental illness.4 In 1992, Panetti was convicted for the murder of his in-laws. He represented himself at trial, during which he wore a cowboy costume and called over 200 witnesses, including the Pope, President John F. Kennedy, and Jesus.5 In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the incompetency standard used in Panetti’s case was “too restrictive to afford a prisoner Eighth Amendment protections,” and reversed and remanded the matter to the Western District of Texas.6 However, on remand, the district court ruled again that Panetti was competent to be executed,7 and the Fifth Circuit affirmed in 2013.8

In the days leading up to Panetti’s scheduled execution, both conservative9 and liberal10 groups became increasingly vocal in their opposition to his execution. While the Fifth Circuit may have taken notice, its last-minute stay of execution offers little indication of the court’s thinking. The two-sentence order said only that the court needed time to “fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue” and that an “order setting a briefing schedule and oral argument will follow.”11

On December 5, 2014, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Brumfield v. Cain,12 a case regarding intellectual disability and capital punishment. Kevan Brumfield was sentenced to death in 199513—seven years before the Court, in Atkins v. Virginia, held it unconstitutional to execute people with intellectual disabilities.14 After Atkins was decided, Brumfield moved to establish his intellectual disability; however, the Louisiana state court denied his petition for a hearing.15 The state judge held that the evidence submitted at the penalty phase of Brumfield’s original trial—before Brumfield had the incentive (or ability) to make an Atkins claim—was sufficient to determine that he did not have an intellectual disability. A federal district court reversed the ruling16 but was subsequently reversed by the Fifth Circuit.17 The issue is whether the state court erred in denying Brumfield’s petition for a hearing. Also at issue is whether the state court was required to provide funds for Brumfield to establish his intellectual disability.18

The Supreme Court is poised to address several important mental health issues this term. Shaheen may prove particularly consequential. Fatal confrontations between law enforcement and people with mental illness are quite common: a 2013 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association estimates that half of all people shot by police officers in the United States have mental health issues.19 While Brumfield is a narrower legal issue, it may build off the Court’s recent decision in Hall v. Florida, which was the first time the Court stated that Atkins does not give states “unfettered discretion” to define intellectual disability.20 Although unlikely, this trend may be a hopeful sign for Scott Panetti, who recently filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court claiming that his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment due to his severe mental illness.21

Preferred Citation: Michael Clemente, Roundup: Recent Developments in Criminal Justice and Mental Health Law, Yale L.J. (Dec. 19, 2014),