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Justices from fifth circuit court of appeals puts execution of Scott Panetti, who is schizophrenic, on hold over ‘complex legal questions’

The Guardian
Wednesday 3 December 2014 12.14 EST

A mentally ill death row inmate whose impending execution attracted international condemnation was granted a reprieve by a federal appeals court on Wednesday less than eight hours before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection in the Texas state penitentiary.

The fifth circuit court issued a stay of Scott Panetti’s execution so it could “fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue”.

“We are grateful that the court stayed tonight’s scheduled execution of Scott Panetti,” his attorneys, Greg Wiercioch and Kathryn Kase, said in a statement. “Mr Panetti has not had a competency evaluation in seven years, and we believe that today’s ruling is the first step in a process which will clearly demonstrate that Mr Panetti is too severely mentally ill to be executed.”

Panetti shot dead Joe and Amanda Alvarado, the parents of his estranged wife, Sonja, in front of her and their three-year-old daughter in the Texas hill country in 1992.

As Panetti’s execution date approached his case gained widespread attention and a number of evangelical Christians, mental health groups, legal figures and prominent conservatives called for the sentence to be commuted, along with two United Nations human rights experts.

After discovering through a media report at the end of October that an execution date had been set, the 56-year-old’s attorneys launched a series of petitions asking state and federal courts to remove him from death row or at the least to afford them more time and allocate funds to hold a fresh competency hearing. They said that his mental health had deteriorated since his previous competency hearing in 2007.

They also argued that executing someone as delusional as Panetti would serve no useful retributive or deterrent purpose and would violate the constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishments.

The Wisconsin-born US navy veteran had been admitted to hospitals more than a dozen times for a variety of mental health problems since first being diagnosed with schizophrenia aged 20 in 1978. In 1986 his first wife sought to have him committed to hospital after he tried to “exorcise the devil” from their house by burying furniture in the back yard and nailing the curtains closed.


At his 1995 trial he was allowed to represent himself and tried to call Jesus, John F Kennedy, the Pope and Anne Bancroft as witnesses. He dressed in a purple cowboy suit in court and often rambled incoherently and on irrelevant topics such as Native Americans and the death of his dog. He said the killings were perpetrated by an alter ego known as “Sarge” and mounted an insanity defence despite calling veterinarians to the stand rather than mental health experts.

Over nearly two decades a variety of state and federal courts agreed that he is seriously mentally ill yet found him competent to be executed on the basis that he has a factual and rational understanding of the relationship between his crime and his punishment. That is the legal standard set out by the supreme court in a 2007 judgment known as Panetti v Quarterman.

His pro bono attorneys challenged that interpretation, saying that he had a fixed delusion that Texas prison officials hatched a satanic plot to kill him in order to stop him preaching Christianity.


 


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