Friday, May 11, 2001

Inmate before Ohio's high court

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — State law says mentally ill killer Jay D. Scott can be executed Tuesday if he understands he is going to die because he killed someone.

        On Thursday, Mr. Scott's attorneys urged the Ohio Supreme Court to throw out that law, and declare executions of the mentally ill cruel and unusual punishment.

        Failing that, they asked the justices to order a new court hearing to decide whether Mr. Scott is incompetent to be executed under Ohio's legal standard.

        “We are here today seeking relief for a severely mentally ill man,” attorney Timothy F. Sweeney told the court. “Should a person suffering from schizophrenia suffer society's ultimate punishment?”

        Convicted of killing Cleveland delicatessen owner Vinnie Prince in 1983, Mr. Scott came within an hour of death April 17. The high court stopped the execution to give an appeals court more time to weigh that question.

        Now that the appeals court ruled Mr. Scott is fit to die, Assistant Attorney General David Gormley asked the justices not to stop the execution a second time.

        “No one doubts he has (schizophrenia,) but that's not the standard,” Mr. Gormley said.

        Many of the justices seemed to agree. Justices Alice Robie Resnick, Andrew Douglas, Francis Sweeney and Deborah Cook posed tough and sometimes critical questions to Mr. Scott's legal team.

        Justice Douglas pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that set most states' standard for determining competency. The 5-4 ruling declared a person competent if he understands the nature of the punishment and why he is being punished.

        “In effect, you're asking us to overrule the U.S. Supreme Court,” Mr. Douglas said.

        Justice Resnick wondered whether it was the high court's place to set a new standard.

        “Isn't that up to the General Assembly?” she said.

        Mr. Sweeney insisted the high court can void the law under either the state or U.S. constitutions. He said society's evolving “standards of decency” make executions of mentally ill prisoners cruel and unusual punishment.

        “We are asking the justices to do some things that are challenging to courts, but that's what courts are for,” Mr. Sweeney said after the hearing. “We are asking them to say that this state law doesn't cut it.”

        Mr. Scott was first diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1994; prison officials have found him alert and responsive to questions. Mr. Sweeney said his client has suffered several psychotic episodes in which he completely loses touch with reality.

        The high court can issue its decision in Mr. Scott's case at any time. It could come as early as today.

        If the justices refuse to block the execution, Mr. Sweeney said he will file a final appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

        He hopes to persuade the nation's highest court to add Mr. Scott's case to a North Carolina death penalty case involving a mentally retarded inmate.


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