Despite decades of mental illness, Scott Panetti set to be executed at 6pm local time on Wednesday
The US state of Texas should immediately halt its “shameful” plans to execute a man with severe mental illness, said Amnesty International just days ahead of the planned judicial killing.
Scott Panetti, a 56-year-old man whose mental illness predated and contributed to the 1992 double murder for which he was sent to death row, is scheduled to be executed in Texas soon after 6pm local time on Wednesday 3 December.
Panetti has a decades-long history of mental illness. At his 1995 trial he insisted on acting as his own lawyer, during which he dressed as a “1920s-era” cowboy and gave a rambling defence. Witnesses have variously describing the trial as “bizarre”, a “farce”, a “joke”, a “circus” and a “mockery”. Among more than 200 people Panetta attempted to call as witnesses at the trial were actors, the Pope, Jesus Christ, JFK and numerous other dead people.
Panetti had already been hospitalised more than a dozen times with schizophrenia and other mental illness (see below) when, soon after the last of these hospitalisations in 1992, he shot and killed his parents-in-law. After the double killing he gave himself up, saying that “Sarge” (an auditory hallucination) had controlled him during the crime, that divine intervention had meant that the victims did not suffer, and that demons had been laughing at him as he left the house after the murders.
Five US Supreme Court Justices noted in 2007 that there is “much in the record to support the conclusion that [Panetti] suffers from severe delusions”, and the federal judge to whom they remanded the case found that “Panetti is seriously mentally ill”, and “was under the influence of this severe mental illness” at the time of his crime and when he represented himself at trial. According to his current lawyers, Panetti’s mental illness persists, as indicated in prison records. The lawyers have said that the condemned man reports “hearing voices”, and claims the prison authorities have planted a “listening device” in his tooth and want him executed to shut him up “about the corruption” and to stop him from “preaching the Gospel.”
Amnesty International USA Researcher Rob Freer said:
“Scott Panetti’s mental disability and the related questions of ‘competency’ have riddled this case from the outset.
“It is highly questionable whether he was competent to stand trial, represent himself, or whether he has a genuine understanding of the reason for and reality of his punishment.
“The parole board and governor should call a halt to this shameful planned killing in the interests of decency, compassion and human rights.
“It is never too late until the lethal injection is administered. The parole board can vote for commutation. The governor can stop the execution, even without a recommendation to do so from the board. To choose to kill Scott Panetti would put down another shameful marker in the ugly history of the death penalty in the USA.”
Appeals court split-decision rulings
Earlier this week (25 November), in a 5-4 ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to issue a stay of execution, saying it lacked jurisdiction. Four of the nine judges dissented, arguing that the court’s failure to review the case could result in “the irreversible and constitutionally impermissible execution of a mentally incompetent person.”
In a second ruling on 26 November, this time 6-3, the same appeals court refused to review the claim that imposing the death penalty on someone with severe mental illness “offends contemporary standards of decency” and therefore violated the US constitution. In a strong dissenting view, one of the judges said that he would grant the claim, adding that it was “inconceivable” to him “how the execution of a severely mentally-ill person such as [Panetti] would measurably advance the retribution and deterrence purposes purportedly served by the death penalty.” The two other dissenters said they would have blocked the execution so that the issue could be further considered.
Panetti’s hospitalisations before the murders
In the years before the murders, Scott Panetti was hospitalised on numerous occasions in Texas and Wisconsin:
1981: involuntarily committed to Kerrville State Hospital, Texas. He was diagnosed as paranoid and hostile to his family.
1986: admitted to Starlite Village Hospital, Texas. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia. By now he had a history of speaking incoherently and paranoia.
1986: transferred to Kerrville Hospital. Diagnosed with paranoia and schizophrenia.
1986: transferred to Waco Veteran’s Administration Hospital, Texas. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with anti-psychotic medications.
1986: after he moved back to Wisconsin he was admitted to Tomah Veteran’s Hospital, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
1986: hospitalised in Northern Pines Unified Services Center, where he was diagnosed with depression and suicidal ideation.
1986: transferred to Cumberland Memorial Hospital, and diagnosed with depression, brain dysfunction, delusions, auditory hallucinations, and homicidal ideation toward his family.
1986: admitted to Starlight Village Hospital on his return to Texas. Again diagnosed with schizophrenia.
1986: transferred to Kerrville State Hospital, and diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and manic depression (bipolar disorder).
1990: involuntarily committed to Kerrville Hospital due to homicidal behaviour, threatening to kill his wife, his baby, his father-in-law and himself. Around this time he apparently had come to believe that there was a plot against him by the citizens of Fredericksburg, the area where he, his wife and his parents-in-law lived.
1992: admitted to Kerrville Hospital, and diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. He had again threatened his family. Records from this time reveal that Panetti had a series of different personalities or aspects of himself that he gave names to.
The crime was committed two months after this last hospitalisation.
For more information on Panetti’s mental health and his trial, go here
So far this year, 33 executions have been carried out in the USA - ten of these in Texas. Last year the USA executed 39 people, one of the highest numbers of any country in the world. Texas accounts for nearly 40% of all executions in the USA since judicial killing resumed (under revised capital laws) in the country in 1977. Amnesty opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception.