U.S. appeals court rules for mentally ill Texas death row inmate


“We will now reverse the district court’s denial of appointed counsel and expert funding . . . vacate its factual findings relating to Panetti’s competency, and remand for additional proceedings, another chapter in this judicial plunge into the dark forest of insanity and death directed by the flickering and inevitably elusive guides.”

With that dramatic opening statement, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit sent the case of Scott Panetti, a mentally ill man, back to a U.S. District Court, with an order to the court to appoint a new lawyer for him and authorize federal funds for a mental health expert and investigator to assist in his defense.

Panetti, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who was convicted of killing his wife’s parents in 1992, represented himself at his trial in 1995, and attempted to call as his witnesses the pope, Jesus Christ, and John F. Kennedy. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but appealed his conviction based on his mental incompetence. He was granted stays of execution in 2004 and 2014, and in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked his execution, saying a condemned inmate must have the mental capacity to know he is going to be executed and understand why.

In this week’s ruling the appeals court wrote, “We need not and do not treat the merits of Panetti’s claim that he is incompetent to be executed—that is for the district court after Panetti has been afforded the opportunity to develop his position. We conclude that the district court abused its discretion in denying Panetti funding for counsel and for experts to assist in preparing his contemplated federal habeas petition.”

And, the court said, “There is no justification for executing the insane, and no reasoned support for it, as only a glance at the brief of amici—filed by able and fervent citizens spanning the spectrum of political views—will confirm.”

The Texas Tribune reports that following the ruling, Panetti’s defense attorneys issued a statement saying, “We are grateful that the court found that Mr. Panetti’s nearly four decades of documented schizophrenia and severe mental illness provided a sufficient showing to obtain experts and resources to pursue the claim that he is currently incompetent for execution.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has not found that it is unconstitutional to sentence a mentally ill defendant to death, only that an insane person cannot be executed. And, as the New York Times pointed out in a recent article on the death penalty and the mentally ill, “‘ insane’ is narrowly defined as ‘those who are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it’ — a definition that excludes most people with severe mental illness.”

As Think Progress writes, “This rule creates a bizarre framework whereby an inmate who flashes back and forth between periods of delusion and moments of sanity may be killed so long as the execution occurs while the inmate is lucid. It encourages the very kind of never-ending litigation that characterizes the Panetti case, and potentially pulls prosecutors into the ghoulish task of repeatedly asking a court’s permission to kill a person whose mental state is in flux. . . .” subjecting Scott Panetti to “a very peculiar form of torture.”




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