The Supreme Court blocked the execution of a schizophrenic Texas death-row inmate Thursday in a ruling that makes it easier for mentally...

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court blocked the execution of a schizophrenic Texas death-row inmate Thursday in a ruling that makes it easier for mentally ill condemned prisoners to contest their death sentences.

The court ruled in 1976 that it is unconstitutional to execute an insane prisoner, but since then no death-row inmate has succeeded in overturning a death sentence based on mental illness. Thursday’s ruling removed one obstacle to such claims: the fact that a prisoner’s disorder might not become fully evident until after the deadline for raising constitutional appeals has passed.

By a vote of 5-4, the court said that the law does not bar consideration of a claim by lawyers for convicted murderer Scott Louis Panetti that the inmate is too delusional to understand the state’s reasons for planning to put him to death — even though they waited until Panetti’s execution date was set in 2003 to raise the claim.

Requiring prisoners to meet the deadline would effectively require every inmate to lodge an “unripe” insanity claim just to preserve the option, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, adding “to the burden imposed on courts, applicants, and the States, with no clear advantage to any.”

The Supreme Court also held that state courts must permit inmates to introduce their own expert testimony in their appeals, and that the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the New Orleans-based federal court that regulates capital punishment in Texas, used an overly restrictive definition of mental incompetence when it rejected Panetti’s claim.

Panetti, who has a history of psychiatric hospitalizations, says he knows that the state says it wants him to die for the 1992 murder of his mother- and father-in-law. But he insists that the real reason is to prevent him from preaching the Gospel.