The Supreme Court has decided that a convicted murderer cannot be executed unless he has a rational understanding of the fact that he is going to be put to death and of the reason for his execution. Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 954–60 (2007). In announcing that rule, however, the Court did not decide what rational understanding means in this context. It acknowledged that a concept like rational understanding is difficult to define and cautioned that normal or rational in this context does not mean what a layperson understands those terms to mean….
The habeas petitioner in our case, John Ferguson, contends that under the Panetti decision he is mentally incompetent to be executed. As the facts come to us, Ferguson has a mental illness but he does understand that he is going to die by execution, and he understands that it is going to happen because he committed eight murders. Ferguson also believes, as tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of other people do, that there is life after death. Countless people also believe, as he does, that they are among God’s chosen people. But Ferguson’s religious belief is more grandiose than that because he believes that he is the Prince of God….
One could argue, as Ferguson’s attorneys do, that his belief that he will be resurrected as the Prince of God negates a rational understanding that he will be killed and thereby establishes that he is not mentally competent to be executed. That cannot be correct. Panetti cannot mean that a belief in resurrection or other forms of life after death is inconsistent with the rational understanding of death that is required for mental competence to be executed. If it did mean that, most Americans would be mentally incompetent to be executed.
While Ferguson’s thoughts about what happens after death may seem extreme to many people, nearly every major world religion — from Christianity to Zoroastrianism — envisions some kind of continuation of life after death, often including resurrection. Ferguson’s belief in his ultimate corporeal resurrection may differ in degree, but it does not necessarily differ in kind, from the beliefs of millions of Americans. [Details, including a canvass of many religions throughout the world, omitted. -EV] …
A conclusion that a particular belief about the afterlife and one’s role in it is extreme enough to be irrational, delusional, and indicative of incompetence to be executed is only a few steps away from the same conclusion about any person who believes in resurrection, in heaven or hell, or in any variation of life after death. Courts should be reluctant to treat as a symptom of mental illness anyone’s belief about what will happen to him after he dies. It is beyond the ken of courts to measure the rationality of religious beliefs –– what will happen to us after we pass through the dark curtain of death is the ultimate non-justiciable question.
Because the state courts’ determination that Ferguson possesses a rational understanding of his execution and the reason for it is not so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement, AEDPA precludes us from disturbing their judgment.