Just Competent Enough to Be Executed in Texas

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A convicted murderer with a long, well-documented history of mental illness, including schizophrenia and paranoid delusions, is facing execution in Texas, and the state is attempting to prove that he is “just sane enough to be executed,” according to The Texas Tribune.

Texas has no problem admitting that Scott Panetti has severe mental illnesses, but during a recent three-day hearing, the state’s Attorney General’s Office attempted to convince a federal court that Panetti retains the sanity necessary to be executed.

It is a difficult topic and a difficult case that highlights some of the foibles in our criminal justice system at both the state and federal levels. With such a complicated legal system, it’s essential to have a skilled criminal defense attorney by your side when facing criminal charges.

The Crime and the Criminal

Panetti has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and paranoid delusions on multiple occasions, both before and since the murders of his in-laws in 1992. Some of the examples used by Panetti’s defense team as a testament to his absence of rational understanding – and that prosecutors accept as true – include the following delusions:

  • Pannetti believes that a prison dental procedure left him with a device implanted in his tooth that either feeds him thoughts or spies on him.

  • Panetti mistakenly believes that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett came to see him on death row.

  • Panetti believes that an evil spirit named Sarge Ironhorse possessed him and forced him to kill one of his victims over three decades ago.

To make matters that much more difficult, Panetti was allowed to represent himself at his drama-fueled 1995 trial, and in the process, he attempted to call lofty witnesses, such as Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy, and proceeded to employ different voices as he questioned himself in the role of Sarge. The prosecution does not dispute any of these facts.

The Standard

The precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court finds that Texas’s burden – if it wishes to skirt the ban against executing the insane – is proving that Panetti has a rational understanding of why the state is set on executing him.

The condensed version is that, if Panetti – a 64-year-old man – recognizes that Texas will be executing him because he murdered people, the standard is met, and the state can proceed with its plan to execute him without concerning itself about his paranoid delusions.

The Recent Court Hearing

At the recent federal hearing, which is another stage in the state’s 27-year attempt to execute Panetti, Texas maintained that – underneath it all – Panetti clearly understands the state’s intention regarding his impending execution.

Over the course of the three-day hearing, Panetti himself showed little emotion and sat fairly still – other than showing and reciting Bible verses to his attorneys, patting his disheveled hair flat on his forehead, and jingling the chain that ran from his wrist to his ankle.

Panetti’s Claim

Texas’s assistant attorney general voiced a concern that Panetti shared that he believes himself to be a prophet with one recent evaluator – but not with the other – giving the state reason to doubt what he actually does and does not know regarding the hearing.

Further, Panetti had shared his belief that the state’s attempt to execute him was a manifestation of the devil thwarting his ability to save souls. The prosecution contrasted this with prior Panetti claims regarding his immortality, which he believed precluded him from execution.

Twisting the Irrational into the Rational

The prosecution is accused of cherry-picking statements and phrases from Panetti’s otherwise nonsensical letters and recorded conversations to support their claim that the prisoner has a firm understanding of his situation and why the state will be putting him to death.

The mental health experts for the defense were increasingly perplexed by the prosecution’s attempt to view Panetti’s irrational thought processes through the lens of rational thinking. A clinical and forensic psychologist for the defense let the prosecution know that Panetti was incapable of the linear thought processes the prosecution used to navigate his statements.

Mental Health History

Panetti’s mental health concerns stretch back 40 years and include all the following incidents:

  • 14 hospitalizations for episodes of psychosis prior to his prison sentence

  • Multiple schizophrenia diagnoses

  • A finding of severe mental disability

Panetti was hospitalized in 1978 at the age of 20 for the severe electrical burns he sustained as a lineman, which may have precipitated his mental illness. In 1986, Panetti began burying his family’s furniture in the yard in an attempt – he said – to keep Satan out of their home.

Four years later, he was hospitalized for what was classified as homicidal behaviors toward his family, which included his belief the entire town was out to get him.

Conspiracy theories such as this one abound with Panetti. In fact, he informed his psychologists this year that his trial was rigged by county officials and residents who were attempting to cover up a pedophile ring in which he believes his father-in-law was involved.

The Murders

In 1992, Panetti’s wife and young child fled their family home to stay with her parents. In response, Panetti shaved his head, donned camo fatigues, and broke through the front door of his in-law’s home. After shooting his in-laws, Panetti held his wife and child hostage for several hours and, in the interim, changed into a suit before ultimately surrendering to the authorities.

The Original Trial

Right before his murder trial began, Panetti fired his legal team and proceeded to plead insanity due to the fact – in his estimation – that he was possessed by Sarge at the time of the murders – when he’d also been off his antipsychotic medications.

Since then, however, Panetti reported that God had cured him of his mental illness. Since then, he has not taken medication for his well-established mental illness, except for a short reprieve after that trial.

His current lawyers, who call his original trial “a mockery of the criminal justice system,” have this to say: “Mr. Panetti rambled incessantly and incoherently, perseverated on irrelevant issues, engaged in bizarre behavior, badgered witnesses, and exasperated the judge. In fact, the jurors at his trial were visibly rattled.”

The Appeals

Since Panetti was found guilty and sentenced to execution, there have been a string of appeals that focus on all the following issues:

  • Whether Panetti was competent to represent himself in court in the first place

  • Whether Panetti was competent to stand trial in the first place

  • Whether Panetti is competent to be executed

Panetti’s first execution date was set for 2004, and it was at this point that the matter of his legal competency made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

2007: Precedent Set

In 2007, Panetti’s case set a precedent with the Supreme Court when the constitutional bar restricting executions for those who are not competent to be held legally responsible was modified.

The standard shifted from determining if the accused possessed a factual awareness of the state’s reasoning for his or her execution to a requirement of also having a rational understanding of the reasoning for execution.

Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed in the court’s 5-4 opinion that when a mental disorder leads to gross delusions, the link between a crime and its attendant punishment can be so warped as to “serve no proper purpose.”

The legal world, mental health professionals, and Kennedy himself have expressed ongoing frustration regarding the vagaries of this “factual awareness” component.

In the scope of this new ruling, Panetti’s competence was confirmed by a Texas court, and another execution date was set for 2014.

A Renewed Look at Competency

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals halted Panetti’s execution in the eleventh hour – finding that his competency needed to be explored further – in the face of the Supreme Court’s rational understanding ruling. While Panetti himself argues that he’s no longer ill and that his competency is not a concern, many legal professionals beg to differ.

While some argue that Panetti is simply buying time, legal experts on the side of the defense tend not to agree. Twenty years in solitude, they believe, is hardly a bargain.

The mental health experts on Panetti’s team have unanimously concluded that Panetti has a firm grasp on what he believes the current hearing is about – a convoluted tableau of conspiracy – but that he has no meaningful understanding of what the trial is actually about.

In this light, most agree that determining whether or not he is just competent enough to be executed is sinister at best.

When Questioned about the Execution

The prosecution found that when Panetti was questioned by its mental health experts, he became cagey in response to the topics of immortality and his in-laws’ murders. The state reads this as Panetti having a rational understanding of the proceedings and attempting to evade topics that would support this finding.

The defense, on the other hand, reads this reaction as Panetti’s delusional thought processes “triggering even more disorganized thoughts around difficult topics,” and they respond by saying, “The topic is one that’s more emotionally loaded, and Mr. Panetti’s tolerance for that issue may be very limited.”

The Ruling

The judge hearing Panetti’s case is not expected to hand down a ruling until 2023, but he has already wondered aloud if the right questions are being asked. Further, the judge posits that if Panetti’s thought processes are so disorganized as to destabilize his rational thinking, what kind of guarantee is there that his thinking – at any given time – is rational rather than delusional?

Ultimately, the judge lamented, “What confidence can I have about any understanding that he might have about anything?”

Historically Speaking

Even before the Eighth Amendment established protections against cruel and unusual punishment in the sixteenth century, common law had protections in place to thwart the execution of so-called “idiots and lunatics.” And in the realm of today’s death penalty, SCOTUS finds such executions “miserable spectacles.”

Another Miserable Spectacle

In the past two decades in the State of Texas alone, there have been two prime examples of the miserable spectacles referenced by the Court.

Monty Delk

Monty Delk was executed in Texas in 2002 for the 1986 murder of a man who was attempting to sell him a car. At the time of his execution, Delk announced that he was the warden and proceeded to exclaim, “Get your warden off this gurney and shut up. I am from the island of Barbados.”

Kelsey Patterson

Kelsey Patterson was put to death just two years after Delk for two murders he committed in 1992. When given the opportunity to make a final statement, Patterson responded with, “Statement to what?” According to the prison records, he went on to say, “Get my money. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back.”

Panetti’s main counsel asked the court whether there were any assurances that his execution would not become another miserable spectacle.

The same question was put to the prosecution’s psychologist, who stands by his belief that Panetti is just competent enough to be executed by the state. His somewhat tepid response – “It’s probably likely . . . that there’s going to be some sort of disturbance” – speaks volumes and is nothing short of disturbing.

Look to an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney for the Focused Legal Guidance You Need

If you are facing a criminal charge – even a minor criminal charge, relatively speaking – your reputation and rights hang in the balance, and having professional legal counsel in your corner can make a serious difference in the outcome of your case.

Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, takes great pride in his proven track record for helping clients like you prevail with beneficial case resolutions and their rights intact.

We’re here for you, too, so please do not delay reaching out to contact us online or call us at (254) 781-4222 for more information today.