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Texas Execution of Schizophrenic Inmate Highlights Place of Mentally Ill in Criminal Justice System

Scott Panetti may be dead by the time you read this.  As of this moment, Texas is scheduled to execute him tonight, and his lawyers are probably doing handstands trying to get the US Supreme Court to review his case.

In 1992, Panetti, who has (had?) a long history of schizophrenia and other mental health issues, dressed himself up in camo and shot his in-laws in front of his wife and daughter.  He then changed into a suit and surrendered to the police.

The Texas criminal justice system, once again distinguishing itself as a model of fairness and decency, ruled that Panetti was competent not only to stand trial, but also to represent himself.  Panetti appeared at trial dressed as a cowboy.  He attempted to subpoena approximately 200 witnesses including, without limitation, John F. Kennedy, Jesus, and the Pope.  During jury selection, he asked prospective jurors if they had any Indian blood.  He referred to demons in his opening statement.  His argument to the jury was apparently premised on the “fact” that he became a character called “Sergeant Iron Horse” at the time of the homicides.  His defense was that he did not kill his in-laws – “Sarge” did.

Panetti was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978.  He spent the next 14 years traveling between mental hospitals, and was diagnosed with paranoia and depression.  He was also found to be delusional.  He suffered from hallucinations and heard voices in his head.  One of those voices was that of Sarge, who apparently played a key role in the conduct complained of.

But wait – there’s more.  Panetti’s wife came home one day to find that their furnishings had been buried in the  yard.  Scott did so to purge Satan from their home.  Panetti was apparently obsessed with the idea that Satan had to be purged from the home, and shot his in-laws because he thought they were possessed.

Panetti was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995.  His lawyers are, among other things, trying to get the Supreme Court to rule on whether executing the mentally ill is unconstitutional.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied a defense request for a new competency hearing.  Panetti’s last competency hearing was approximately seven years ago, and his attorneys are arguing that his condition has deteriorated further since that time.  That ruling is on appeal, as well.  Texas has taken the position that Panetti is competent and understands his crime.  The State bases this conclusion on audio recordings where he purportedly discusses his crimes rationally and with understanding.  Defense counsel is arguing that his history of mental illness should be sufficient to prevent his execution.

From a certain perspective, Panetti’s case is somewhat unusual, insofar as it involves an inmate with a long and well documented mental health history who is now facing execution.  However, his case must be understood in light of the fact that a significant percentage of county, state and federal inmates have mental health and/or addiction issues.  To the extent the outcome of Panetti’s case sets new rules, standards or guidelines for the treatment of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, the result in this case will potentially impact on many inmates being held in facilities nationwide.

As a footnote, and in case anyone is wondering, if he is put to death, Panetti’s will be the 11th execution in Texas this year.  For yet another year, Texas will hold the national record for executions.  Texas posts the final statements of executed inmates on its corrections department website.  If the execution goes off as scheduled and Panetti elects to make a statement, I’m sure it will make interesting reading.  Hopefully, we won’t get that far.