Insane Inmate Deemed Too Ill to Murder

It took 20 years of litigation to figure out

The room where Texas kills prisoners (Courtesy of Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

A very rare thing occurred in death penalty jurisprudence on Thursday: Scott Panetti, one of the most clearly insane people in the history of Texas’ Death Row, was found too mentally ill to be executed.

Panetti has a 40-year history of stark, profound schizophrenia. He currently believes, among other things, that Texas is trying to execute him to cover up his warnings about a child sex ring in Fredericksburg, but that hasn’t kept him from being approved for execution three times over the years. On Thursday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman became the first judge to rule that his execution would violate the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

“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,’” Pitman ruled. “Scott Panetti is one of these individuals.”

Panetti, now 65, first began to exhibit signs of schizophrenia at the age of 20, after suffering extensive electrical burns. Over the next decade he was hospitalized 14 times for various mental health issues, finally receiving a diagnosis of chronic schizophrenia and being declared incompetent to manage his own affairs. In 1992, at the age of 34, he and his wife separated, and he murdered her parents, believing they were instruments of the devil.

A psychiatric evaluation conducted before his trial indicated that Panetti suffered from a fragmented personality, delusions, and hallucinations, but a Fredericksburg jury decided he was competent to stand trial. He fired his attorneys and represented himself in a proceeding described by Scott Monroe, Panetti's standby counsel at his 1995 trial, as “a judicial farce.” Dressed in a burgundy cowboy outfit, he attempted to call Jesus Christ, Pope John Paul II, John F. Kennedy, and actress Anne Bancroft to the stand. He blamed the murders of his in-laws on an alter ego he called Sarge Iron Horse and “questioned” Iron Horse, replying in the alter ego's gravelly voice. Throughout the trial, he frightened onlookers with his nonsensical ramblings. The jury found him guilty of capital murder and Panetti entered Death Row in 1995. The Court of Criminal Appeals, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court refused to overturn his death sentence.

In 2003, Panetti was given an execution date, triggering two decades of further study of his mental state. “While there is no need to recount in detail the specifics of this lengthy procedural history, suffice it to say that Panetti’s mental health has been evaluated by a multitude of experts and courts – state and federal – and that the literature on this topic is voluminous, to put it mildly,” Pitman writes. Pitman held a hearing on Panetti’s competence to be executed in October of 2022, in which doctors said that he is capable of answering why the state wants to execute him – because he killed his in-laws.

But the doctors also said that Panetti believes the real reason for his execution is to cover up the Fredericksburg conspiracy and to stop him from preaching the word of God. “Panetti has a number of reality-based factoids that relate to his execution: for example, he knows he is on death row at the Polunsky Unit, that he had a previous execution date in 2014, and that he represented himself at his 1995 trial,” Pitman’s ruling reads. “But he also holds numerous ‘delusion-based factoids’ that have no basis in reality. Among these, Panetti believes: (1) Justice Amy Coney Barrett visited Death Row at the Polunsky Unit, (2) his sister’s house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, (3) a spirit inhabited him in 1992 and committed the murders, (4) he is a prophet of God, (5) he once bested Minnesota Fats at billiards, and (6) his first sexual experience was with actress Laura Dern.”

In his ruling, Pitman noted that there is a spectrum of functionality among those diagnosed with schizophrenia, so it is possible that a schizophrenic inmate could be deemed fit for execution. But he said the evidence showed that Panetti lacks a rational understanding of his conviction, the state’s planned execution, and the relationship between the two.

“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 reasons for his execution,” Pitman writes. “And given the severity of Panetti’s psychosis, the Court lacks confidence in Panetti’s ability to rationally understand much of anything, let alone the ‘causal retributive connection’ between his crime and impending death in this case.”

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Brant Bingamon
Hundreds of Thousands Denied Medicaid and Food Assistance in Texas
Hundreds of Thousands Denied Medicaid and Food Assistance in Texas
It's a department of dysfunction, and it isn’t getting better

Dec. 1, 2023

Far-Right Pro-Natal Conference Will Proceed in Austin as Planned
Far-Right Pro-Natal Conference Will Proceed in Austin as Planned
Line Hotel hosting anti-democracy, pseudoscientific speakers

Dec. 1, 2023


Robert Pitman, Scott Panetti, Death Watch

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle