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Texas Execution Nears For Murderer Whose Competence Was Debated

Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti has had a long history of mental illness but was allowed to defend himself at trial. He is scheduled to be executed next Wednesday.
Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti has had a long history of mental illness but was allowed to defend himself at trial. He is scheduled to be executed next Wednesday.

On Dec. 3, Texas is scheduled to execute Scott Panetti for murdering his in-laws in 1992. There is no doubt he committed the crime, and there is also no doubt that Panetti is mentally ill. But he was deemed fit to stand trial, and he was allowed to defend himself, dressing in a cowboy costume in court, insisting he was a character from a John Wayne movie.

Over the course of the last two decades — and many appeals — his case has gained national attention, and it has shone a spotlight on capital punishment and mental illness.

A Diagnosis

Since the 1970s, Panetti has had a long and extensively documented history of mental illness. He got his first diagnosis in 1978 while being treated for burns in at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Panetti had been electrocuted while working for the power company.

"The doctors thought he was acting oddly, and they called in a psychiatrist to evaluate him," says Kathryn Kase, his death penalty lawyer. "And the psychiatrist realized that he was experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations, and at the age of 20 he diagnosed him with the beginnings of schizophrenia."

For a while Panetti was able to keep his life together with the help of medication. He worked, married, had children and did his best to live a normal life. But his mental illness got progressively worse.

"One day, his wife came home, and she found him burying the furniture in the front yard. And of course, she knew he was mentally ill, but she was appalled by this, and as she approached him he ran into the house and started nailing the curtains together. And when she questioned him, he told her that he needed to bury the furniture in order to get the devil out of it," Kase says.

The voices in Panetti's head grew worse. There was Sgt. Ranahan, who donned Army fatigues and made armed patrols of the backyard for enemies. There was Wounded Songbird, a thoughtful Native American warrior.

Panetti would dress up in cowboy outfits and swagger around Fredericksburg, Texas, where they lived. Kase says Panetti's paranoia about the devil got so bad that his wife had him committed to a mental hospital in Waco.

"She committed him, and she told the doctors that 'Now he had this delusion about the devil,' " she says. "And like many people with paranoid schizophrenia, he developed a very specific delusion, and this was all about religion."

He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and chronic schizophrenia.

A Texas judge granted Panetti's wife a divorce, and she moved back to Wisconsin with the three children. After a couple of years, Panetti began dating a new woman, a Fredericksburg waitress, got her pregnant and eventually married her. This would prove a disaster. His new in-laws repeatedly reprimanded Panetti for his paranoid behavior. So his lawyer says that one night, Panetti dressed up as Sgt. Ranahan, shaved his head, painted his face camouflage and sawed off the barrel of his .30-06.

"And his paranoia takes over and he believes that they are filled with the devil, and he grabs his wife, he grabs his young child and he goes to his in-laws, and he shot them," Kase says.

Three years later, in 1995, in the small Hill Country town of Kerrville, Texas, Panetti was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death. For many, the heinous crime had resulted in a just and inevitable verdict. Others believe Panetti's case has been a miscarriage of justice.

"I think it's a travesty, I really do. I don't believe he got a fair trial. I don't believe that any of the proceedings through which he went were fair," says Charles Ewing, a forensic psychologist and law professor at SUNY Buffalo. He's the author of Insanity: Murder, Madness and the Law, which has a full chapter on the Panetti case.

"I don't believe that Panetti was competent to stand trial. He paraded about the courtroom dressed in a cowboy costume and acted in a menacing, threatening and incoherent manner," Ewing says.

A Legal Standard Put To The Test

At the time of Panetti's trial, the legal standard was that if a defendant was ruled competent to stand trial then they were also competent to represent themselves in court.

But the Panetti trial put that standard to the test. Off his medication, Panetti dressed in a purple cowboy costume, insisted he was the Ringo Kid from the movie Stagecoach and babbled around the courtroom incomprehensibly. He subpoenaed Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy and Pope John Paul II in his defense. Ewing says the judge also inexplicably allowed Panetti to approach the jury box. The jurors would lean away in their chairs. After the trail was over, a few of the jurors said Panetti scared them.

"His demeanor was frightening to the jurors and they saw him as a crazy man. Some of the jurors said that had he been represented by counsel, they doubted that he would have been sentenced to death," Ewing says.

Panetti's lawyers appealed, arguing that the mentally ill man should never have been allowed to represent himself. But both the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Panetti had knowingly waived his right to counsel. E. Bruce Curry, the district attorney in the case, declined to comment. But Rusty Hubbarth, a Texas lawyer and vice president of Justice for All, a pro-death penalty organization, believes the appeals courts got it right.

"There isn't a question of guilt or innocence here. It's not as if he was convicted last week and is being executed two weeks from now. He has enjoyed due process," Hubbarth says,

An execution date in 2004 was stayed after his lawyers argued Panetti didn't know why he was being put to death. His lawyers say 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 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. Hubbarth endorses the state's position arguing that being mentally ill does not excuse capital murder.

"We've executed people in Texas before that exhibited mental illness. Mental illness does not constitute a block for execution," he says.

Penetti's lawyers have not given up. The landmark case is being appealed again to the federal district court on the grounds that Panetti should indeed have a right to a competency hearing. But Panetti's time is almost out. Without reprieve he'll be executed next Wednesday.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.