Execution of Scott Panetti Halted — For Now

Thanks to everyone who voiced their concern about this case!



AUSTIN: A federal appeals court in New Orleans on Wednesday halted the execution of Texas killer Scott Panetti, whose case has sparked a global debate over whether people with severe mental illnesses should be put to death for their crimes.

Panetti’s lawyers say he is too delusional to be executed. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a reprieve less than eight hours before Panetti was scheduled to receive a lethal injection. The court said it needed more time to “allow us to fully consider the late-arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter.”

The court said oral arguments would be scheduled in the case. The Texas Attorney General’s Office said it won’t fight the ruling and that the execution would not happen Wednesday.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court halted Panetti’s execution and called for another review of his competency. Last year, the appeals court had determined that Panetti was sufficiently competent to be executed.

Paul Appelbaum, of the American Psychiatric Association, which has lobbied against Panetti’s execution, said he was “pleased and relieved” by the ruling.

“This has been a long saga,” he said. “We’re not at the end of the story yet.”… His behavior, best we can tell, was driven by his illness rather than a deliberate act of criminal intent.”

The Supreme Court in 1986 prohibited executions for those who are not aware of their impending execution and the reason for it.

Panetti dressed as a cowboy during his murder trial and, acting as his own lawyer, called John F. Kennedy, Jesus and the pope as witnesses. He’s been hospitalized more than a dozen times for psychosis and delusions.

Panetti, 56, was sentenced to die for the 1992 murder of his estranged wife’s parents. Despite appeals from the American Psychiatric Association, the European Union and others, Texas officials had planned on carrying out Panetti’s execution at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

“This is a man that has been severely and profoundly ill since 12 years before the crime,” Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said before the delay was announced. “It will be a travesty to proceed with this execution.”

There are no statistics showing how many people with mental illnesses have been executed over the years, though they routinely happen, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based non-profit that’s critical of the death penalty. An estimated 10% to 15% of people on death row in the U.S. are believed to have some form of mental illness, he said.

Whether or not to execute defendants with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, has been a growing topic of debate, Dieter said. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling showed 58% of those polled oppose the death penalty for persons with mental illness; 28% favor it.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.