Why the Scott Panetti case strikes at the heart of the death penalty debate

On Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the execution of Scott Panetti to “fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue”.

Panetti has a long history of acute mental health problems, having been hospitalised 15 times as a result of his paranoid schizophrenia.

Accused of the murder of his partner’s parents, Panetti’s trial was farcical. He sacked his legal team, and rejected a plea bargain which would have seen him sentenced to life imprisonment.

Panetti represented himself at trial in a purple cowboy costume, attempting to call witnesses including John F Kennedy and the Pope. When talking about the murders in his own testimony Panetti played the role of ’Sarge‘, whom he claimed was responsible for the murder. He was convicted and given the death penalty.

In 2007, his case went to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled it unconstitutional for the State to execute an individual who did not have a ‘rational understanding’ of why they were to be executed – but they left it to lower courts to implement exactly what that meant. Since then Panetti’s lawyers, who are from the Texas Defender Service acting pro bono, have argued he does not have such rational understanding.

Such an argument is well founded. Panetti claims that prison dentists have installed a listening device in his tooth. He believes the state is attempting to prevent him from preaching the gospel, and exposing corruption. He claims he has been told to write a letter to Barack Obama apologising for getting into a fight with him. He also believes the pop star Selena Gomez is his daughter.

The pending execution had triggered widespread criticism, trending on Twitter as #SaveScott. The online petition set up by Panetti’s sister, calling on the Governor and the courts to refrain from executing her brother, is approaching 100,000 signatures.

This week a group of 21 Conservative leaders, including former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Ciccinelli, wrote to Governor Rick Perry stating Mr Panetti’s case was not of the sort which warranted the execution, the “most draconian penalty”.

Panetti’s case strikes at the moral heart of the death penalty. Questions are not of procedure (such as the recent instances of botched executions) but of substance. With the most stark facts, the question posed is when, if ever, the state should engage in the organised killing of another human?  

He, sadly, is not the only death row inmate in Texas with diagnosed mental health issues.

Lawyers acting for Panetti cited a new poll which showed only 28% of people supported the exercise of the death penalty against people with severe mental health problems. The view was cross-party. Public opinion has changed on the crucial question.

Criticism for the death penalty in Panetti’s case has come from all corners – from Republicans, to a retiring Judge, to the tens of thousands who have signed the petition. What is clear is that on the most basic level of principle, people are concerned about the morality of state-sanctioned execution – especially for those like Panetti with severe and unrelenting mental health problems.

Sign the petition here, and share on social media tagging #SaveScott.

Leon Glenister is a barrister at Hardwicke Chambers. He is also a law tutor at the University of Cambridge and a former intern of the Texas Defender Service.

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