By Karen Ranus, Executive Director of the Austin chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Scott Panetti is a murderer. In 1992, he shaved his head, painted his face in camouflage, and with his wife and young daughter close by, he shot his in-laws with a sawed-off rifle.
On December 3, the state of Texas will execute Panetti for this double murder which hardly seems newsworthy in a state ranked first in executions in the United States. Yet Panetti’s case has energized both pro and anti-death penalty advocates to rally together and protest his execution and request his sentence be commuted.
Trial transcripts, medical records, and expert witness testimony have documented that Panetti suffers from a severe and persistent mental illness. In 1995, Scott Panetti was allowed to serve as his own attorney for the murder of his in-laws despite his 14-year documented history of psychosis and involuntary commitments. His diagnoses included chronic schizophrenia, paranoia and fragmented personality. He was termed manic and delusional. He heard voices and thought he was controlled by an unseen power.
During his trial, an unmedicated Panetti dressed in a purple cowboy costume, insisted he was a character from a John Wayne movie and babbled around the courtroom incomprehensibly. He also subpoenaed Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy and Pope John Paul II in his defense.
Following his conviction, Panetti’s former wife, and daughter of the victims, Sonja Alvarado, filed a petition stating that Panetti never should have been tried for the crimes as he was suffering from paranoid delusions at the time of the killings.
Scott Panetti is a murderer, but he is also a man with a severe and persistent mental illness for which there is no cure. Schizophrenia is a devastating and challenging biological brain disorder which requires careful and ongoing management with both medication and therapy. Treatment can relieve symptoms, but there is no cure. In 1986, the Social Security Administration deemed that Panetti’s schizophrenia was so debilitating, it entitled him to benefits.
An execution date in 2004 was stayed after his lawyers argued Panetti didn’t know why he was being put to death. According to his lawyers, he has an ongoing delusion that he’s being executed for preaching the gospel to death row inmates. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, ruling that a defendant must have a rational understanding of the reasons for his imminent execution.
But the State of Texas insists Panetti understands well enough and on Tuesday, in a 5-4 decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Panetti a stay of execution and refused to appoint mental health experts to his case.
Why are advocates on both sides of the death penalty issue united in their concern for this particular execution? It is difficult to ignore the evidence that clearly paints the picture of a man with a severe mental illness. The Supreme Court has declared that executing people with a mental illness violates the Eighth Amendment.
Can the state of Texas in good conscience continue to put to death people who are seriously ill and have no rational understanding of the reasons for their execution? Leaders everywhere are finding it difficult to remain silent on this issue. The last word will come from Governor Rick Perry who has the authority to commute Panetti’s sentence. Will Governor Perry stay silent or will he join the loud chorus of voices challenging the state to change its stance on the execution of people with mental illness?