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Fifth Circuit to Hold Oral Argument this Month Regarding Scott Panetti’s Incompetency for Execution

( [email protected] ) Sep 09, 2015 05:31 PM EDT
On September 23, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will hold oral argument regarding the case of Scott Panetti, a schizophrenic who suffers from fixed delusions and has a nearly 40 year documented history of severe mental illness.
Scott Panetti was tried for the capital murder of Joe Alvarado and Amanda Alvarado, his parents-in-law on September 8, 1992 in Gillespie County, Texas. He was subsequently sentenced to death. AP photo

On September 23, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will hold oral argument on Scott Panetti's motion to reverse a federal district court ruling and return his case to the lower court with orders to appoint counsel, authorize funds for investigative and expert assistance, and provide counsel with adequate time to prepare a habeas corpus petition raising the claim that Mr. Panetti is currently incompetent to be executed.  

The case will be heard in Dallas, Texas at the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Wednesday, September 23, 2015, at 2 p.m.Central time.

Mr. Panetti is a schizophrenic who suffers from fixed delusions and has a nearly 40 year documented history of severe mental illness. The Fifth Circuit stayed Mr. Panetti's execution on December 3, 2014 to further review the issues surrounding his competency.  

Mr. Panetti has not been evaluated by any mental health experts since late 2007 and the last evidentiary hearing held on his competency took place in February 2008. A review of the most recent records shows that he has deteriorated since that time. 

An amicus brief submitted on behalf of national conservative movement leaders, some who support the death penalty and others who do not, stated they "are united [...] in their belief that the execution of Scott Panetti would serve no penological purpose and would in no way promote public safety. Rather than serving as a proportionate response to murder, the execution of Panetti would only undermine the public's faith in a fair and moral justice system. And it would be a glaring and unwelcome example of excessive governmental power."

CASE BACKGROUND

Mr. Panetti has suffered from extreme mental illness for nearly 40 years. He was hospitalized a dozen times for psychosis and delusions in the six years leading up to the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death.

The first time Mr. Panetti showed signs of being afflicted with a psychotic disorder was in 1978, over 14 years before the crime. During his multiple hospitalizations, doctors diagnosed him with chronic schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder and proscribed antipsychotic medication.

In 1986, Mr. Panetti first succumbed to the delusion that he was engaged in spiritual warfare with Satan. In an affidavit his first wife signed to have him involuntarily committed, she testified that he was obsessed with the idea that the devil was in the house. He engaged in a series of bizarre behaviors to exorcize his home, including burying his furniture in the backyard because he thought the devil was in the furniture.

Two years before the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death, Mr. Panetti was involuntarily committed for homicidal behavior and was found to be suffering from delusions and psychotic religiosity.

The crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death also had the hallmarks of a severely disturbed mind. While off his antipsychotic medication, Mr. Panetti shaved his head and dressed in camouflage fatigues before going to his in-laws' home and committing the offense for which he was convicted and sentenced to death.

Detailed information about Mr. Panetti's medical history can be found in this mental illness timeline starting in 1978 that shows how Mr. Panetti's mental health degenerated over the years, including how in 1986, the Social Security Administration made a determination that Mr. Panetti was so disabled from schizophrenia that he was entitled to government benefits.

Mr. Panetti's Trial: 'A Miserable Spectacle'

Despite being a paranoid schizophrenic, Mr. Panetti represented himself at his capital murder trial in 1995. Wearing a cowboy costume with a purple bandana and attempting to call over 200 people to the witness stand, including the Pope, John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ and his own alter ego, Mr. Panetti was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Mr. Panetti's statements in court, at both the guilt and sentencing phase, were bizarre and incomprehensible. He took the witnesses stand and testified about his own life in excessive and irrelevant detail.

Mr. Panetti announced that he would assume the personality of "Sarge" and recounted the gruesome details of the crime in the third person. He gestured as if pointing a rifle to the jury box (visibly upsetting the jurors) and matter- of-factly imitated the sound of shots being fired.

Fixed Delusion that Texas is Trying to Kill Him for Preaching the Gospel

In 2004, Texas tried to execute Mr. Panetti, but a federal court stayed the execution and the United States Supreme Court ultimately found the Fifth Circuit's standard for determining competency to be executed unconstitutional in Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007). Notwithstanding that decision, Texas continued to contest Mr. Panetti's competence to be executed. In 2013, the Fifth Circuit again found him competent to be executed - despite the District Court's findings that he has a severe mental illness and suffers from paranoid delusions.

If his execution date had not been withdrawn, he would have gone to the execution chamber convinced that he was being put to death for preaching the Gospels, not for the murder of his wife's parents, and the retributive goal of capital punishment would not be served.

Widespread Support for Clemency

On November 12, 2014, Mr. Panetti's attorneys filed a clemency petition with Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles along with letters supporting clemency from the leading Texas and national mental health organizations and professionals such as the American Psychiatric Association, Mental Health America and Disability Rights Texas; criminal justice and legal professionals including former Texas Governor Mark White, state Attorneys General and former judges and prosecutors; 55 Evangelical leaders from Texas and nationally and 7 retired and active Bishops from the United Methodist Church and other faith leaders; Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and the American Bar Association, among others.

On November 18, 2014, worldwide support for Scott Panetti reached a groundswell with new calls for clemency from prominent individuals and organizations from across Texas and the world, including the nation's largest grassroots advocacy organization on mental illness, National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI); NAMI's Texas affiliate; ten legislators from Texas; former U.S. Representative Ron Paul; several more Evangelical Christians; and the European Union, which represents twenty-eight nations.