BREAKING: Federal Court Halts Execution Of Severely Mentally Ill Man in Texas

December 3rd 2014

Alex Mierjeski

BREAKING (WEDNESDAY 12:30 ET): The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of execution for Scott Panetti, who was due to be executed Wednesday evening, according to BuzzFeed. The courts decided to postpone the execution "to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter." They also announced that there would be a briefing schedule and oral arguments before proceeding further, but have yet to reveal that scheduled.

Texas was scheduled to move forward with the execution of a severely mentally ill man at 6PM tonight, flexing its right-to-kill muscles even as it is poised to mark a debased new low for our criminal justice system. If the state succeeds, it would mark the 34th inmate put to death in Texas in 2014.

In 1995, Scott Panetti, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, was convicted for the murder of his in-laws three years earlier. After a jury failed to buy his insanity defense, Panetti was handed the death sentence. Since then, his case has been a “slow-moving train wreck,” according to Kathryn Kase, part of the legal team representing Panetti.  

As the execution date inches ever closer, Panetti has become the central character of a divisive international debate over the use of capital punishment in cases involving mental illness. 

At this point, no one (including Panetti) is quibbling over the details of the crime itself. Rather, activists are up in arms over the impending death of a man with a 30-plus year history of documented schizophrenic symptoms. At his trial, he donned a purple cowboy suit and subpoenaed witnesses like JFK, Jesus Christ, and the Pope, among 200 others. After firing his lawyers for a perceived conspiracy, Panetti was inexplicably given the green light to represent himself. “Jesus Christ doesn’t need a subpoena," he said during the trial. “He’s right here with me, and we’ll get into that.” 

For its part, Texas maintains that Panetti is mentally competent enough to die, falling to one side of the main legal issue that has dogged the case since the outset—what exactly constitutes “competent?” A 2007 Supreme Court decision involving Panetti’s case determined that courts must find a defendant to possess a “rational understanding” of the execution and the reasons behind it. Many considered this opinion a positive step in reinforcing their previous ban on executing the mentally ill. 

But in a cruel and bizarre twist, the justices refused to set precise guidelines designating standards for mental illness, and as his case was sent back down, a 5th Circuit court ultimately found that Panetti was indeed competent despite compelling evidence to the contrary. Not even a supporting Supreme Court case bearing his name could help.  

Lawyers and supporters of Panetti, who has said his execution is the culmination of a satanic plot to keep him from preaching, see it the other way, arguing that his execution would be a violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. 

As Texas remains steadfast in its decision, a wide and varied swath of voices has come out in opposition, calling for clemency. These include prominent Evangelical Christians, Texas state legislators, Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, the American Bar Association, the United Nations, the European Union, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul; former Texas Gov. Mark White, and nearly 30 former prosecutors and U.S. attorneys general. 

Even a group of 21 conservative leaders joined the fight, arguing that killing “one of the most seriously mentally ill prisoners on death row” would “undermine the public’s faith in a fair and moral justice system.” 

At press time, Texas courts have rejected all of Panetti’s appeals. Yesterday, in a last-ditch effort, his lawyers urged the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the execution on grounds that it would violate the Eighth Amendment. 

But so far, their effort has not been enough. With just over 24 hours before Panetti is to be strapped to a gurney, his only hope is if Texas Gov. Rick Perry recommends a stay of the execution or if the state’s Board of Pardons and Parole recommends clemency and Perry acquiesces.

“The Panetti case is as shameful a stain on our legal system as I have observed in my 43-plus years as a lawyer,” Michael Perlin, a lawyer, law professor, and expert on mental health and the law told VICE. “There is no question as to the profundity of his mental illness and similarly no question that his execution mocks the notion that due process is truly available to all in the criminal justice system.” 

Panetti’s case comes in tandem with an emerging public consensus that it is wrong to execute people suffering from severe mental illness and serves as unsettling commentary on how our justice system handles the estimated 350,000 mentally ill inmates across the nation. But Panetti’s case is also a startling example of the failures of legal safeguards meant to protect those who might undeservingly fall victim to our system’s most draconian of punishments. If all goes as planned tomorrow at 6 p.m., we stand to move in the opposite direction of the retributive and deterrent progress the death penalty purportedly advances. Until then, all eyes are on Texas.