Texas Set to Execute Man Lawyers Argue is Mentally Ill

Texas Set to Execute Man Lawyers Argue is Mentally Ill

AUSTIN, Texas — On Wednesday, the State of Texas is scheduled to execute a convicted murderer despite arguments from his attorneys that he is too mentally ill to be put to death. 

Scott Panetti, 56, was convicted of the 1992 murders of his mother-in-law and father-in-law, after a trial that made headlines for Panetti’s odd behavior. Panetti’s name is on one of the key United States Supreme Court cases establishing the standards under which mentally ill people can be executed. 

Panetti had been diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic in his twenties, was prescribed high doses of powerful anti-psychotic medications, and had been hospitalized over 12 times for delusions and psychotic episodes. The murders were brutal and bloody, and Panetti held his estranged wife and young daughter, spattered with the blood of his victims, hostage for hours after killing his in-laws before finally surrendering to police the next morning. 

Panetti requested to represent himself at his trial. The court held a competency hearing, and despite finding that Panetti was suffering from a “fragmented personality, delusions, and hallucinations,” the court still ruled that he was competent to represent himself. 

Panetti wore a cowboy suit with a purple handkerchief to court and attempted to subpoena John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ as witnesses. He admitted that he had committed the murders, but argued that he was not guilty by reason of insanityAs per standard procedure, the court appointed “standby counsel” to observe and assist Panetti, and they reported that his behavior, both in court and privately was “scary,” “bizarre,” and “trance-like,” making the trial a “judicial farce,” according to a report by the New York Times. A long article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel describes more detail about Panetti’s bizarre actions during the trial, including using the name of an alter-ego, “Sarge,” drawing cartoons on legal documents, pointing an invisible gun at the jury, and berating his wife with odd, babbling statements during his cross-examination of her.

The jury convicted Panetti of capital murder and he was sentenced to death. Years of appeals ensued and at one point in February 2004, he was only a day away from a scheduled execution when a federal judge issued a stay, holding his execution until it could be determined whether executing him would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Eventually the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. That case, Panetti v. Quarterman, decided in 2007, changed the standard for mental illness for executing death row inmates. Previously, the Court allowed mentally ill inmates to be executed if they had a threshold understanding that they were going to be executed and why. Instead, the Court ruled that it was necessary to prove that the inmate must have a “rational understanding” of why he was being executed, reasoning that the Eighth Amendment forbids executing the insane, because it offends human decency and does not serve the goals of retribution or deterrence. “The potential for a prisoner’s recognition of the severity of the offense and the objective of community vindication are called into question, however, if the prisoner’s mental state is so distorted by a mental illness that his awareness of the crime and punishment has little or no relation to the understanding of those concepts shared by the community as a whole,” wrote the Court.

An expert who had examined Panetti testified that he believed that he was on death row as part of the “spiritual warfare” between “demons and the forces of the darkness and God and the angels and the forces of light.” Panetti said that he understood that the state claimed he was being executed because of the murders, but believed that was an excuse, to cover up the real motivation: to stop him from preaching about the Bible.

The Court sent the case back to the lower courts to determine if Panetti met this new standard, and so far, his appeals have been unsuccessful. Earlier this month in a 5-4 vote, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Panetti’s request for a new evaluation, and his execution remained on the calendar. Panetti’s attorneys argued that it had been seven years since Panetti’s last mental health evaluation, and that he has been showing increasingly delusional behavior while on death row, according to NBC News. One of his attorneys, Kathryn Kase, told NBC News, “He cannot appreciate why Texas seeks to execute him. You have to have a rational as well as factual understanding of why you’re being executed.” The prosecutors countered that Panetti has had years to arrange new evaluations and pointed to the testimony of their experts, who have voiced suspicions that Panetti was faking some of his bizarre behavior. The Journal Sentinel interviewed Panetti in 1999, and reported that he told them he knew he was mentally ill but was “babbling nonsensically” during most of the interview, flexing his muscles and claiming that he had been recruited by the Green Bay Packers to play football.

Panetti is scheduled to be executed on at 6:00 p.m. Central Time on Wednesday, December 3rd, at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. Over 75,000 people have signed a petition asking Governor Rick Perry to commute his sentence to life in prison without parole, and his attorneys are still trying to file last minute appeals.

Photo credit: Associated Press.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.