Texas plans to execute inmate lawyers say is delusional

The case of a Texas death row inmate is raising questions about the legality of executing the mentally ill. Convicted of murdering his in-laws in 1995, Scott Panetti is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who his lawyers say is showing increasingly delusional behavior.

Scott Coomer/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/AP/File
Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti talks during a prison interview in Huntsville, Texas in 1999, where he is on death row for the 1992 murder of his wife's parents. Panetti's execution is set for Dec. 3, 2014 but Panetti’s attorneys want the death date withdrawn or at least delayed to allow for a new round of psychological testing to determine if he’s competent to be executed.

No one disputes that Scott Panetti — heavily armed, head shaved and wearing camouflage — shot and killed his in-laws at their Texas Hill Country home, showering his estranged wife and 3-year-old daughter in blood.

Panetti himself acknowledged during his 1995 capital murder trial that he had killed Joe and Amanda Alvarado. Dressed as a cowboy, he acted as his own attorney, believing only an insane person could prove an insanity defense.

Jurors convicted him and sentenced him to death, and he is scheduled to die on Wednesday.

Panetti's attorneys are seeking to get him off death row or, in the very least, to get his execution date postponed so that he can undergo further psychological testing to determine if he's competent to be put to death. They believe his case raises questions about the legality of executing the mentally ill — an issue the U.S. Supreme Court has previously considered.

"From our perspective, this has been like a slow-moving train wreck since 1995," said Kathryn Kase, one of his lawyers.

A diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, Panetti had been hospitalized for mental illness more than a dozen times in the decade leading up to the September 1992 killings of the Alvarados.

A 2007 Supreme Court review of Panetti's case tweaked the criteria for executing those with severe mental disorders by requiring inmates to not only know that they are being punished, but to also have a "rational understanding" of their punishment. Providing little guidance other than requiring a "fair hearing" for presentation of psychiatric evidence to consider insanity claims, the justices returned Panetti's case to lower federal courts, which ultimately found him competent.

Seven years since his last mental evaluation, Panetti is showing increasingly aberrant delusional behavior on death row, said Kase, who visited him a few weeks ago. He believes his punishment is part of a satanic conspiracy to prevent him from preaching the Gospel.

"He cannot appreciate why Texas seeks to execute him," Kase said. "You have to have a rational as well as factual understanding of why you're being executed.

"In Mr. Panetti's case, his understanding is the state wants to prevent him from preaching the Gospel on death row and saving their souls. And clearly that's not factual or rational."

Prosecutors argue that Panetti's claims are without merit and that defense attorneys have had years to arrange new evaluations.

Lucy Wilke, an assistant district attorney in Gillespie County, where Panetti was tried, said that as recently as Nov. 4, Panetti discussed Election Day politics during a prison visit with relatives.

"At the very least, it is clear that Panetti is oriented to time and place, a fact which his lawyers have disputed," she said in a filing last week to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which refused to stop the execution.

Panetti's case now is back before a federal appeals court.

Court-appointed medical experts for the state have long said they suspect some of Panetti's bizarre behavior was contrived.

Panetti responded to a recent interview request from The Associated Press with the message: "I respectfully decline, Acts 28." The Biblical chapter in the Acts of the Apostles includes a reference to St. Paul as a prisoner of the Romans and of Paul successfully teaching the Gospel.

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