TEXAS OFFICIALS SET TO EXECUTE AN OBVIOUSLY INSANE MAN IN DECEMBER: THE CASE OF SCOTT PANETTI

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A man convicted in 1995 for murdering his in-laws with a hunting rifle and then spraying the blood of the victims on his wife and 3-year-old daughter is set to be executed in Texas on December 3rd this year. Scott Panetti appears to have exhausted his appeals in the state and federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court. Although Panetti’s sanity has never been at issue, he is clearly mentally ill- having been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, other mental delusions, bouts of hallucinations, manic depression and been hospitalized for such disorders over 14 times, the case has brought to the forefront the issue of whether a civilized country should execute an insane person. Grappling with technical definitions, and procedural hurdles, the apparent final “verdict” from the appellate courts is that a defendant must only be aware of his pending consequences (death penalty) including a rational understanding of his crime, his impending death, and the causal retribution between the two. Multiple hearings were conducted at various stages of the appeal process; at times the appeals were suspended and remanded back to the trial court as new precedent impacted the specific issues on appeal. The findings of the trial court concerning Panetti’s “rational understanding” of his crime and the consequences were upheld. Secret tapings between Panetti and family members concerning the case and precisely the issue of competence revealed that he was aware of what was happening and there was evidence of malingering on his part. The testimonies of expert witnesses were conflicting and unclear at times, as were the statements of the prisoners housed in the same cells, and the guards who mainly postulated that he was faking his ignorance of the proceedings presumably to avoid the death penalty.  While it seems everyone agrees that Panetti is insane, under the rules carved out by the appellate courts, and the policies in place in Texas, he may be executed. That is business as usual in Texas. On October 28th, 2014, Miguel Angel Paredes was executed in Texas- he was number 518 since 1982.

UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit issued a stay in this case pending their review of “complex legal questions” that have been raised by the parties. The government had argued that a stay was inappropriate based upon several technical grounds; lawyers for Scott Panetti urged the court to grant the stay based upon the compelling evidence of mental illness and other deficiencies in the record below.

UPDATE: July 2018

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case of a Texas death row inmate with schizophrenia back to district court in a sharp opinion Tuesday. The lower court will have to take another look at whether Scott Panetti’s mental illness makes him ineligible for execution. The district court judge had ruled that over the past decade no relevant new evidence regarding his mental health had surfaced– that ruling was reversed by the 5th circuit.

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