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Court Declines to Stay Execution of Schizophrenic Inmate

UPDATED: Texas’ highest criminal court has again refused to halt schizophrenic death row inmate Scott Panetti’s looming execution.

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Updated Nov. 26, 3:40 p.m. 

Texas’ highest criminal court has again refused to halt Scott Panetti’s looming execution.

In a 6-3 ruling on Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals thwarted the latest effort to stay the schizophrenic death row inmate’s execution. It was the court’s second decision on the case in as many days.

In their latest motion, Panetti’s attorneys argued that his mental illness “renders him categorically ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, because imposition of the death penalty on offenders with severe mental illness offends contemporary standards of decency."

“We have reviewed the application,” the court’s majority wrote, “and find that applicant has failed to satisfy the requirements” for a reprieve.

In a dissenting statement, Judge Elsa Alcala said Panetti’s attorneys “raised a compelling argument that he is entitled to relief.”

“I would grant a stay of execution and file and set the application in order to allow this court the opportunity to fully examine applicant's contentions,” she wrote.

In a separate dissent, Judge Tom Price said he now believes the death penalty should be abolished.  

Original story: 

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has rejected a request to delay the looming execution of a schizophrenic death row inmate.

In a 5-4 decision handed down Tuesday, the court cited jurisdictional grounds in declining to stay Scott Louis Panetti’s execution, scheduled for December 3.

Panetti’s attorneys argue he is too incompetent to be legally put to death.

The Wisconsin native was sentenced to death for the 1992 shooting deaths of his in-laws, Joe Gaitan Alvarado, Jr. and Amanda Carrion Alvarado of Kerr County. At the time, Panetti – who represented himself at trial and dressed up in a cowboy suit in court – was a diagnosed schizophrenic and collected federal disability checks because he could not work. 

The 56-year-old’s mental health is deteriorating, his attorneys say, and his recent paranoid delusions have included believing that someone is putting “Satanic graffiti” on his cell walls, and that state officials are watching him through pumpkin decorations at the Polunsky Unit where he is detained.

But the appeals court ruled that it couldn’t revisit a lower court’s refusal to grant a stay because his attorneys had not filed a proper “Article 46.05" motion  “on or after the 20th day” before the scheduled execution.

On November 14, Panetti’s attorneys filed a motion asking for more time and expert help to “provide a meaningful opportunity” to prepare the Article 46.05 motion, which asks a court to reconsider whether an inmate is fit for execution. 

“He has made a colorable showing that he is not competent to be executed,” they argued, but couldn’t meet the legal threshold without more resources.

But the appeals court on Tuesday said its was “deprived of jurisdiction” to weigh in.

“No motions for rehearing will be entertained, and the Clerk’s Office is instructed to issue mandate immediately,” the majority wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Elsa Alcala said she disagreed with the majority’s “overly formalistic interpretation.” 

 “This court, at best, deprives appellant of a fair opportunity to litigate his claims,” she wrote. “At worst, this court’s decision will result in the irreversible and constitutionally impermissible execution of a mentally incompetent person.” 

Kathryn Kase, Panetti’s attorney and executive director of Texas Defender Service, said she agreed with Alcala.

“Texas continues to pursue the execution of a man with an incurable, devastating mental illness that profoundly affected the crime, his trial and his death sentence,” she said in a statement. “Mr. Panetti’s serious mental illness has infected every stage of his case.”

The ruling is the latest twist in Panetti’s 22-year legal saga.

In 2004, he was granted a stay the day before his scheduled execution. In 2007, one of his appeals made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that mentally ill inmates can be executed only if they understand what is about to happen and why. Because Panetti's competency has not been assessed for years, his attorneys claim, there’s no way to know if he meets that test.


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