Nov 22, 2014

Death Penalty for the Mentally Ill: Scott Panetti

A Documented 30 Year History of Mental Illness:

Scott Panetti received his first diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1978 at the age of 20. Between 1981 and 1992, he was hospitalized 14 times at six different institutions for showing symptoms of psychosis characterized by tangential and circumstantial thinking, hallucinations, delusions, grandiosity, and paranoia. Extensive medical records chronicle these symptoms.

In 1986 Panetti experienced a psychotic episode during which he tried to "...wash the devil from the walls of his house" and buried the family's furniture in the backyard, believing the devil was in it. He nailed the curtains shut so that “the neighbors would not film him.” Shortly before the murders in September 1992 Sonja Alvarado tried to have him committed after he "...came after her with a knife". She took his guns to the local police but they simply returned them, claiming they had no legal right to prevent Panetti from having them.

At no point was there any suggestion that he is malingering or faking symptoms.

In July 1994 a competency hearing was scheduled to determine whether Panetti was fit to stand trial. In Texas, these hearings are held before a jury: in most other states a judge determines competency with input from psychiatric professionals. The jury was unable to come to a consensus, and the judge declared a mistrial. At a second competency hearing Panetti’s lawyer testified that in the previous two years he had had no useful communication with Panetti because of his client’s delusional thinking. A psychiatrist for the defense concluded that Panetti was not competent to stand trial; a psychiatrist for the prosecution agreed with the previous diagnoses of schizophrenia, and noted that Panetti’s delusional thinking could interfere with his ability to communicate with counsel. The same doctor reported that Panetti did not know what year it was and could not identify the president.
Yet he still concluded that Panetti was competent to stand trial, and the jury agreed.

At both competency hearings Panetti was medicated with large doses of antipsychotic drugs.

In 1995 Panetti experienced what he calls an “April Fool’s Day revelation”: he believed that God had cured his schizophrenia, and stopped taking his medications. He also became convinced that he could not trust his lawyers, whom he thought were conspiring with the police and the courts; after trying to fire them the judge apparently held no further competency hearing and allowed him to represent himself. When his trial began in September of that year court documents claim that his defense could be "...described charitably as bizarre"; in fact Scott Panetti conducted his defense dressed as a cowboy in a purple suit and a hat.
  •  He attempted to call more than 200 witnesses, including John F. Kennedy, the pope, Anne Bancroft, and Jesus Christ. (The last he later recanted: “Jesus Christ, he doesn’t need a subpoena. He’s right here with me, and we’ll get into that,” Panetti said in court.)
  • He interrogated one prospective jury member as to whether the person had any “Indian blood,” before launching into a tirade about an event he called “Wounded Elbow”—conflating the battle of Wounded Knee with something to do with the Ayatollah Khomeini. 
  • He cross-examined himself on the stand, addressing his alter ego “Sarge.”
  • He disposed of documents prepared for him by backup counsel, convinced that the prison guards were colluding against him. He presented no mitigating evidence.
  • The judge declined to accept crucial medical records because Panetti had drawn all over them. 
 A psychiatrist who had assessed Panetti prior to trial and witnessed the proceedings says Panetti was “acting out a role of an attorney as a facet of the mental illness, not a rational decision to represent himself at trial.” After less than two hours of deliberation, the jury found Panetti guilty of murder and recommended capital punishment. (Life without parole was unavailable in Texas at the time.) In post-conviction proceedings the judge determined that he was incompetent to waive counsel.

Panetti v. Quarterman:

In 2007 Panetti’s case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ standard for assessing his competency for execution was unconstitutional. In Panetti v. Quarterman (2007), the court emphasized that evaluating Panetti’s factual understanding of the meaning of his execution and its consequences was not sufficient in light of his severe mental illness. The objectives of capital punishment, the court wrote, are not served “if the prisoner’s mental state is so distorted by a mental illness that his awareness of the crime and punishment has little or no relation to the understanding of these concepts.”
Both the district court and the 5th Circuit ignored the court’s direction. Neither attempted to reconcile how a severely mentally ill man like Panetti, whose delusions and reality are so intertwined that he believes the judges and the State of Texas are conspiring with Satan to execute him, can possess a rational understanding of the connection between his crime and death sentence.

The District Court showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of delusions when it found that Panetti’s delusions were not “constant,” citing an earlier visit between Panetti and his parents. Panetti’s parents would have no reason to “press his buttons” or place him under stress with challenging questions, unlike the experts who are tasked with evaluating competency. In any event, the district court overlooked evidence that Panetti did, in fact, speak of his delusions with his parents: he spoke repeatedly of his efforts to fulfill his destiny and bring the word of god to the men on death row. For example, Panetti called the trial judge in his case a “devil worshipper” and explained: “Some of (these Death Row inmates) are possessed with devils. They’re anti- Christian, Satanists. So that’s why I’m here to deal with that.”

On appeal the 5th Circuit upheld this limited understanding of competency for execution. Under the 5th Circuit’s view, if a court can single out any shred of evidence that appears to show a prisoner’s rational understanding of the reason for his punishment, his delusional belief system and decades of severe mental illness are simply irrelevant.

The state does not dispute that Panetti believes that he would be executed for saving souls on death row, not for murder. It cannot be said that such a prisoner has the capacity to accept responsibility for his crime. If he doesn’t have a rational understanding of the link between his crime and his execution, the death penalty fails to serve its purpose as a punishment.
The courts should listen to the doctors who study psychotic disorders. The district court and the 5th Circuit’s reasoning downplays Panetti’s severe mental illness and how his delusions control his mind.

Request for Clemency:

In October 2014,  a district judge signed a warrant setting Scott Panetti's execution date for December 3, 2014. Panetti’s attorneys only discovered this when they read it in the newspaper two weeks later; the office of District Attorney Bruce Curry did not notify them, as is the pattern and practice of capital law in Texas. Panetti’s attorneys might have used that time to attempt to save his life. Texas has been scheduling executions in 2015: they pushed Panetti’s ahead so it can happen in 2014.

Petitions from over 50 national evangelical leaders as well as former Congressman Dr. Ron Paul  are being submitted to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole and State Governor Rick Perry requesting them to consider granting Scott Panetti’s clemency petition and commute his death sentence to life in prison. The petitions claim that:
"The execution of Scott Panetti would be a cruel injustice that would serve no constructive purpose whatsoever. When we inflict the harshest punishment on the severely mentally ill, whose culpability is greatly diminished by their debilitating conditions, we fail to respect their innate dignity as human beings."

The U.S. Supreme Court should take Panetti’s case and clarify a precise standard for determining a prisoner’s competency for execution. Current law has left the lower courts with unfettered discretion in determining which prisoners will be executed. If we want to live in a just, humane society, we cannot continue to fail to protect people with severe mental illness from execution.

Houston criminal attorney George Parnham is an expert on the defense of individuals with mental illness and a passionate advocate for legal reform of their treatment in the criminal justice system.

Attorneys for Scott Panetti appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals: TDACP
Massive Failures of Justice: Why Texas is about to execute a profoundly mentally ill man; Boer Deng and Dahlia Lithwick,
Evangelical letter of Support, Panetti clemency (.pdf)
Dr. Ron Paul clemency letter (.pdf)

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