Federal court halts controversial execution of Scott Panetti in Texas

The Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday stayed the execution of Scott Panetti, a Texas man convicted of killing the parents of his estranged wife, pending further competency evaluation.

Scott Coomer/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/AP/File
Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti talks during a prison interview from death row in Huntsville, Texas, Nov. 19, 1999. Panetti's execution was scheduled for Wednesday but a federal appeals court issued a stay just eight hours ahead of the execution.

A federal appeals court in New Orleans has halted the execution of a Texas man whose case has attracted international attention and condemnation. The execution was stayed just eight hours before the execution, scheduled for Wednesday, so the court could "fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter." 

Scott Panetti had been sentenced to death by lethal injection for the 1992 killing of his estranged wife's parents with a deer rifle in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter. However, Mr. Panetti's lawyers have argued he is too mentally ill to receive the death penalty and requested that his execution be halted until further competency tests could be administered. The attorneys say he has suffered from schizophrenia for decades and that putting him to death would violate his Eighth Amendment rights, which protect against cruel and unusual punishment. A number of religious and mental health groups have also come to his defense and have called for his sentence to be reduced.  

"We are grateful that the court stayed tonight's scheduled execution of Scott Panetti," his attorneys, Greg Wiercioch and Kathryn Kase, said in a statement, according to The Guardian. "Mr. Panetti has not had a competency evaluation in seven years, and we believe that today's ruling is the first step in a process which will clearly demonstrate that Mr Panetti is too severely mentally ill to be executed."

Panetti, who was born in Wisconsin and served in the US Navy before being honorably discharged at the age of 18, was first diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978 at age 20. He was admitted to hospitals 13 times between 1978 and 1991. In 1986, he expressed feelings of "being controlled by an unseen power" and had "fears that the devil is after him," according to a timeline provided by his lawyers. The doctor comments provided in the timeline routinely note behavior associated with schizophrenia.

At his 1995 trial, where Panetti represented himself, he wore a cowboy costume and a purple bandanna and tried to call more than 200 witnesses, including Jesus, the pope, and President Kennedy. 

"Widespread and diverse voices agree that Mr. Panetti's execution would cross a moral line and serve no retributive or deterrent value," said Kathryn Kase, Panetti's lead lawyer and executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit that represents people facing the death penalty, according to The New York Times

But the state of Texas argues that Panetti is sufficiently aware of the crime he committed and that he "has been grossly exaggerating his symptoms while being observed." Conversely, in a description of the case on its site, the Texas Defender Service contends that Panetti is delusional to the point where he believes he is being executed "by Satan, working through the State of Texas, to put an end to Mr. Panetti’s preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the condemned."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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