Panetti Sane Enough to Die

But schizophrenic's execution stayed pending further appeals

On Sept. 30, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled that Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti is competent to be executed, but stayed the execution pending the outcome of Panetti's appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – and possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court. In an 18-page ruling, Sparks concluded that Panetti is mentally ill and that, though there is some doubt as to whether he understands the connection between his crime and impending punishment, the law – as currently interpreted by the 5th Circuit – does not bar his execution.

Panetti was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of his in-laws, Joe and Amanda Alvarado, at their house in Fredericksburg. He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and prior to the murders he had been hospitalized at least 11 times – in 1986, he buried his furniture in his back yard and slashed at the walls of his house with a knife in an attempt to exorcise demons. Panetti was released from his last hospitalization just two months before the Alvarado murders. When he turned himself in to police after the murders, Panetti told authorities that "Sarge" – later identified as a recurring auditory hallucination – was responsible for the murders.

Prior to the murders Panetti took antipsychotic drugs intermittently; he was heavily medicated during a 1994 hearing that led to his being found competent to stand trial. By the time that trial began, Panetti had gone off his meds, turned away his attorney and, dressed in a purple cowboy outfit, represented himself at trial and subpoenaed Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and Anne Bancroft as witnesses.

In September, Sparks presided over a two-day hearing to determine whether Panetti is competent to be executed. On behalf of the state, Assistant Attorney General Tina Dettmer argued that while Panetti may be ill and delusional, he nonetheless has the capability to understand that he is facing execution for the murders; therefore, she argued, his sentence should be carried out. Conversely, Panetti's attorney Keith Hampton argued that the law requires that Panetti understand, both factually and rationally, the reasons that he is being put to death, which, Hampton argued, Panetti does not. According to Panetti, the state, in league with demons and as part of "spiritual warfare" it has been waging since the 1980s, wants him dead to keep him from preaching the "gospel of the Lord King."

In his ruling, Sparks wrote that although the six psychiatrists and psychologists who testified agreed "at least implicitly" that Panetti is capable of understanding that he is facing execution, their opinions "diverged" on a number of other points. "Significantly," he wrote, "no witness was able to state as a matter of fact that Panetti understands he is being executed for the murders he committed." Although the Supreme Court has suggested that competency must mean a defendant "perceives the connection between his crime and his punishment" for the "retributive goal of the criminal law" to be satisfied, he wrote, the court has not applied that standard. "Ultimately," he wrote, "the Fifth Circuit test for competency ... requires the [defendant] know no more than the fact of his impending execution and the factual predicate for the execution."

The experts agreed that Panetti knows the state says he is to be executed for the Alvarado murders, Sparks wrote, but they disagree on whether Panetti understands what that means. Sparks noted that one witness, Dr. Mark Cunningham, suggested that Panetti "does not even understand that the State of Texas is a lawfully constituted authority," which raises a "somewhat more difficult issue" in determining whether Panetti comprehends his situation. However, he wrote, "under the precedent of the Fifth Circuit, delusional beliefs ... do not bear on the question of whether the [defendant] 'knows the reason for his execution.'"

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Death penalty, Scott Panetti, Tina Dettmer, Joe Alvarado, Amanda Alvarado, Sam Sparks, Keith Hampton, mental illness, schizophrenia, Fifth Circuit, Supreme Court, competency

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