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Execution of Schizophrenic Inmate Stayed by 5th Circ.

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The 5th Circuit on Wednesday stayed the execution of a schizophrenic Texas inmate hours before the double-murderer was to die by lethal injection.

The execution of Scott Panetti, 56, sparked international criticism of the nation's most active death-penalty state plan to put a mentally ill man to death.

After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Panetti's appeal last week, attorneys filed a flurry of last-minute appeals.

A broad coalition of mental health professionals, legal scholars, conservative groups and politicians asked officials to intervene. More than 97,000 people signed an online petition urging Texas Gov. Rick Perry for compassion.

On Wednesday a three-judge panel on the 5th Circuit granted Panetti's appeal, saying the court needs time to consider the "complex legal questions at issue in this matter."

Panetti's legal team said the ruling is the first step in a process that will demonstrate Panetti is "too severely mentally ill to be executed."

"Mr. Panetti's illness, schizophrenia, was present for years prior to the crime, profoundly affected his trial, and appears to have worsened in recent years," attorneys Greg Wiercioch of the University of Wisconsin Law School and Kathryn Kase of the Texas Defender Service said in a joint statement.

"When people who have severe mental illness enter our criminal justice system, the system has a moral obligation to respond appropriately to the limitations and deficits presented by mental illness," they said.

Panetti has not been evaluated for seven years. He has a fixed delusion that his execution "is being orchestrated by Satan, working through the State of Texas, to put an end to his preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ," his attorneys say in court documents.

Panetti was 34 in 1992 when he shaved his head and shot his in-laws to death in their Fredericksburg, Texas home. After the killings, he kidnapped his wife and daughter at gunpoint and held them hostage in a cabin before releasing them.

He was arrested that same day but told police "that it was his alter ego, 'Sarge' who did the killing," according to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice summary of the case.

Attorneys say the murders were a result of a "psychotic break" produced by the mental illness that Panetti has been battling since 1978.

Panetti was convicted of capital murder in 1995 but not before attempting to call more than 200 witnesses, including John F. Kennedy, the Pope, and Jesus Christ, in what his attorneys called "a bizarre circus that contravened justice."

Panetti has been down this road before. The Wisconsin native was one day away from execution in 2004 when a federal judge stayed the death sentence to evaluate whether Panetti had the competence to be executed. Despite finding Panetti was under the influence of severe mental illness at the time of the crimes, the court concluded he was competent for execution.

Panetti was scheduled to be eleventh and final Death Row inmate to be executed in Texas this year. The 10 Texas executions was the lowest number since 1996 when Texas executed just three people. It has scheduled 11 executions for the first five months of 2015.

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