The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case of a Texas death row inmate with schizophrenia back to district court in a sharp opinion Tuesday. The lower court will have to take another look at whether Scott Panetti’s mental illness makes him ineligible for execution.
Panetti’s case is well known in Texas. He is often the poster child for advocates who argue against the death penalty for the mentally ill. Previously diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he waived his right to counsel during his original trial more than 20 years ago and attempted to call the pope, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ as witnesses.
At issue in the latest development in a long and winding legal saga is whether a federal court would grant Panetti a lawyer, experts and time to present evidence that he is incompetent for execution. His mental competency was last examined in 2007 — the year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his case that a death-sentenced person must understand that they’re about to executed and why.
The U.S. District Court for Texas' Western District denied Panetti’s latest requests, stating that he “failed to show that his mental health had substantially changed” since the 2007 evaluation, according to the Tuesday opinion. But the appellate court rejected the argument and ordered the lower court to grant Panetti’s request and further review his competency.
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“The reality is that a decade has now passed since the last determination of whether this concededly mentally ill petitioner is competent to be executed,” Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote in the three-judge circuit panel’s opinion. “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.”
Panetti was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1992 murders of his wife’s parents in Fredericksburg. His mental illness has always been a key element in all of his legal proceedings since. His appeals have focused on his early diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1978 and stories of delusions that have persisted throughout his life.
According to the appellate court's opinion, since his last mental evaluation, prison guards have noticed Panetti acting delusional and he has claimed to be the father of singer Selena Gomez and said CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer showed his stolen prison ID card on the news.
Panetti’s defense team said Tuesday they are confident the district court will find Panetti ineligible for execution after further review. The state of Texas has argued that Panetti's case should be held in state courts based on procedural rules.
“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,” lawyers Greg Wiercioch and Kathryn Kase said in a statement.
Read related Tribune coverage:
The complex and protracted path Scott Panetti's death row case has traveled illustrates how few safeguards Texas has to protect mentally ill killers from being executed. [Full story]
The 23-year saga that is the Scott Panetti death penalty case was sent back to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals as lawyers argued over whether the 57-year-old is competent enough to be executed, and who should pay to determine that. [Full story]