By George Parnham | Special to the American-Statesman
Do you remember Scott Panetti? He is pretty unforgettable. Panetti is the man with paranoid schizophrenia who was allowed to represent himself, while on trial for his life, wearing a make-believe Western cowboy outfit. He insisted on defending himself and attempted to summon dozens of witnesses, including John F. Kennedy, the pope and even Jesus Christ.
Panetti’s delusional courtroom performance was not simply painful to watch. It was a mockery of civilized society.
If Texas executes Panetti, it would be another travesty. He would go to his death convinced that he is being executed for preaching the gospel, not for the 1992 murder of his in-laws in Kerr County. The U.S. Supreme Court should intervene and prevent this gross injustice. The court needs to announce a clear standard for determining competency for execution that will provide guidance for the lower courts.
For more than 30 years, Panetti has suffered from severe mental illness. In the decade leading up to the crime, he was hospitalized 14 times for schizophrenia, manic depression (bipolar disorder), auditory hallucinations and delusions of persecution and grandiosity. At one point, he buried his furniture in his backyard because he believed the devil was in his furniture. By all accounts, his mental condition has gotten worse in prison.
Panetti’s case previously went to the U.S. Supreme Court, when the court held that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ standard for assessing his competency for execution was unconstitutional. In Panetti v. Quarterman (2007), the court emphasized that evaluating Panetti’s factual understanding of the meaning of his execution and its consequences was not sufficient in light of his severe mental illness. The objectives of capital punishment, the court wrote, are not served “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 these concepts.”
Both the district court and the 5th Circuit ignored the court’s direction. Neither attempted to reconcile how a severely mentally ill man like Panetti, whose delusions and reality are so intertwined that he believes Satan and Texas are conspiring to execute him, can possess a rational understanding of the connection between his crime and death sentence.
The District Court showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of delusions when it found that Panetti’s delusions were not “constant,” citing a visit between Panetti and his parents. Panetti’s parents would have no reason to place Panetti under stress with challenging questions or “press his buttons,” unlike experts who are tasked with evaluating competency.
In any event, the district court overlooked evidence that Panetti did, in fact, speak of his delusions with his parents. He spoke repeatedly of his efforts to fulfill his destiny and bring the word of god to the men on death row. For example, Panetti called the trial judge in his case a “devil worshipper” and explained: “Some of (these Death Row inmates) are possessed with devils. They’re anti- Christian, Satanists. So that’s why I’m here to deal with that.”
On appeal, the 5th Circuit upheld this limited understanding of competency for execution. Under the 5th Circuit’s view, if a court can single out any shred of evidence that appears to show a prisoner’s rational understanding of the reason for his punishment, his delusional belief system and decades of severe mental illness are simply irrelevant.
The courts should listen to the doctors who study psychotic disorders. The district court and the 5th Circuit’s reasoning downplays Panetti’s severe mental illness and how his delusions control his mind.
The state does not dispute that Panetti believes that he would be executed for saving souls on death row, not for murder. It cannot be said that such a prisoner has the capacity to accept responsibility for his crime. If he doesn’t have a rational understanding of the link between his crime and his execution, the death penalty fails to serve its purpose as a punishment.
The U.S. Supreme Court should take Panetti’s case and clarify a precise standard for determining a prisoner’s competency for execution. Current law has left the lower courts with unfettered discretion in determining which prisoners will be executed. If we want to live in a just, humane society, we cannot continue to fail to protect people with severe mental illness from execution.
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Parnham is an attorney in Houston who has represented many defendants with severe mental illness, including Andrea Yates.
Earlier coverage of Scott Panetti’s case and standards for competency to be executed is at: