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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Schizophrenic Man Hours From Execution in Texas

AUSTIN (CN) - The upcoming execution of a schizophrenic man in Texas led attorneys to seek relief Monday from the U.S. Supreme Court and Gov. Rick Perry.

Scott Panetti, 56, is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the state prison in Huntsville.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest court, denied Panetti's final appeal last week, 5-4.

Judge Tom Price's impassioned dissent said Panetti's mental illness renders him "categorically ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution."

"It is inconceivable to me how the execution of a severely ill person such as applicant would measurably advance the retribution and deterrence purposes purportedly served by the death penalty," Price wrote.

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.

Today more than 90,000 people have signed an online petition started three weeks ago by the inmate's sister, Vickie Panetti, urging the Texas governor for compassion.

The list of supporters asking for Panetti's death sentence to be commuted to life without the possibility of parole grows as Wednesday's execution draws closer. Dozens of mental health professionals, legal scholars and conservative groups, including former presidential candidate Ron Paul and Evangelical Christian organizations, called on officials to intervene before putting Panetti to death.

The international campaign for clemency includes the European Union and its 28 member states, plus 10 Texas legislators and former Democratic Gov. Mark White.

Panetti was 34 when he shaved his head, dressed himself in camo and used a sawed-off shotgun to murder his in-laws in their Fredericksburg, Texas, home as his wife and 3-year-old daughter watched.

After the killings, he kidnapped his now ex-wife and child at gunpoint, holding them hostage in the bunkhouse where he had been living before releasing them unharmed.

Panetti was arrested that same day after a lengthy standoff with police.

He put on a suit and surrendered to authorities, but told them that "it was his alter ego, 'Sarge' who did the killing," according to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice summary of the case.

One of Panetti's lawyers, Greg Wiercioch, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, says the 1992 murders were a result of a "psychotic break" produced by the mental illness. He says Panetti has been battling the disease since 1978 when doctors at Brooke Army Medical center discovered signs of early schizophrenia.

Panetti was 20 years old and has been severely mentally ill ever since, Wiercioch and attorney Kathryn Kase, of the Texas Defender Service, say in Monday's petition to the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari.

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 'circus,' where he was the dime-store-cowboy-costumed ringmaster."

Attorneys said jurors became frightened and "visibly upset" by Panetti's courtroom performance.

Panetti represented himself at trial wearing a television Western cowboy costume, and once he pointed at jurors with his hand shaped like a gun, pantomiming the killings with gestures and sound effects.

A Kerr County judge denied Panetti's request for withdrawal or modification of the execution date on Nov. 6. Attorneys hoped to contest his competency for execution.

Panetti hasn't been evaluated in 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.

Kase said there is still time for Perry to use his executive power to grant a 30-day reprieve to examine Panetti's competency for execution.

"There is still time to stop this unconscionable execution of a severely mentally ill man who would die without comprehending what his death means," Kase said in a statement.

In their letter to the governor, Panetti's attorneys say the state has "a duty to ensure than an abhorrent punishment that diminishes us, as a civilized community, is not carried out."

Panetti would become the 11th and final inmate executed this year in the most active death-penalty state in the nation. There are 11 executions already scheduled in the first five months of 2015.

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