Convicted murderer Scott Panetti isn’t sane enough to be executed, federal judge rules

4 months 3 weeks 5 days ago Thursday, September 28 2023 Sep 28, 2023 September 28, 2023 2:53 PM September 28, 2023 in News - Texas news
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
Interior of the state's death chamber. Credit: Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

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Once again a federal court has ruled that Texas cannot execute a severely mentally ill man who has been repeatedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and paranoid delusions. Texas had argued that convicted murdered Scott Penetti retains enough sanity to be killed legally.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ruled Wednesday that Panetti is not sane enough to be executed for the murder of his in-laws in 1992. The court deemed that Panetti lacked a rational understanding of the connection between his actions and his death sentence.

“There are several reasons for prohibiting the execution of the insane, including the questionable retributive value of executing an individual so wracked by mental illness that he

cannot comprehend the ‘meaning and purpose of the punishment,’ as well as society’s intuition that such an execution ‘simply offends humanity.’ Scott Panetti is one of these individuals,” Pittman said in his ruling.

Gregory Wiercioch, Panetti’s defense attorney, applauded Pitman's decision saying the execution would have been a miserable spectacle.

“Judge Pitman’s ruling prevents the State of Texas from exacting vengeance on a person who suffers from a pervasive, severe form of schizophrenia that causes him to inaccurately perceive the world around him,” he said.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedents, all the state had to do to clear the constitutional barrier against executing the insane is prove that the 65-year-old has a “rational understanding” of why the state plans to kill him.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas held a three-day evidentiary hearing in October to determine whether Panetti was currently competent enough to be executed under this standard.

Pitman determined that just because Panetti is factually aware of his conviction and sentence of death for murdering Joe and Amanda Alvarado, he doesn’t have a rational understanding of his execution.

“In short, the Eighth Amendment demands more than a single thread of arguably rational thought in a sea of otherwise disorganized thoughts and delusions to establish that a person rationally understands the reason for his execution,” Pitman said in court documents.

After his wife and toddler left him to stay with her parents in 1992, Panetti fatally shot his in-laws,Joe and Amanda Alvarado, then took his wife and child hostage for hours until surrendering to police.

Panetti believed he was going to be executed because of a vast conspiracy against him to cover up a pedophile ring in Gillespie County and to stop him from preaching, not because he murdered the Alvarados.

The State argued that Panetti has consistently expressed an understanding that he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death for killing the Alvarados and that was enough to prove rational understanding of his crime. Pitman disagreed with this assessment.

Panetti’s recorded history of mental illness goes back more than four decades. Before going to prison, he had been hospitalized 14 times for psychotic behavior. He was repeatedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and found to be severely disabled, according to court records.

His first recorded signs of illness came when he was 20, according to his attorneys. In the 1980s, he began expressing a delusion that he was battling Satan and buried his family’s furniture in the yard to rid the home of the devil.

Two years before killing the Alvarados, he was institutionalized for homicidal behavior toward his family.

After Pentti's first execution date was set in 2004, the question of his competency made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices in 2007 set a new court precedent with his case and raised the bar on the constitutional restriction against executing the insane. Instead of weighing whether the death row inmate simply had a factual awareness of the state’s reason for executing him, the court ruled he must also have a rational understanding of it as well.

“Gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put an awareness of a link between a crime and its punishment in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s 5-4 opinion.

After another yearslong round of reviews, the courts accepted Panetti was competent, leading to a new execution date being set in 2014. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stopped it at the last minute, however, agreeing that a thorough, renewed look at his competency was warranted and his case was brought before Pitman.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/28/texas-execution-scott-panetti-sanity/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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