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What message do we send by killing the mentally ill?

On Behalf of | Dec 3, 2014 | Firm News

Tonight at approximately 6 p.m. CST Texas is scheduled to execute Scott Panetti, a man who has suffered from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses for over 30 years. Less than 12 hours before the state of Texas was set to execute Scott Panetti, an appeals court issued a stay Wednesday morning, meaning Panetti’s lawyers will have another chance to argue that the death penalty is unconstitutional in their client’s case.

The central issue at hand—one which Panetti’s lawyers and the state of Texas have been arguing over for decades—is whether Panetti is insane and therefore ineligible for legal execution. In 1986, the United States Supreme Court ruled that executing a mentally insane prisoner violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, the court never defined what constituted mental “competency.”

After a jury found him competent to stand trial, a judge allowed him to represent himself in court. At his trial, Panetti wore a cowboy costume and a purple bandana and attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and the Pope, along with 200 others. His statements were often incoherent and rambling, and at one point he even fell asleep. In 1995, Panetti was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death.

Because Panetti knew that he committed two murders, was set to be executed, and was aware of the state’s reason for executing him, the Fifth Circuit court ruled in 2004 that he was competent to be executed. However, witnesses for the state, a psychologist, and a clinical psychiatrist testified that Panetti believed the real reason the state wanted to execute him was to stop him from “preaching the gospel.”

In 2008, the Fifth Circuit held a second competency hearing for Panetti. Like in 2004, multiple expert witnesses testified Panetti believed the state was executing him to stop him from preaching the gospel. Despite their testimony, the court found Panetti had “both a factual and rational understanding of his crime, his impending death, and the casual retributive connection between the two,” and once again ruled him competent to be executed.