The Austin Chronicle

Death Watch: Executing the Mentally (and Physically) Ill

By Chase Hoffberger, November 28, 2014, News

Should the state of Texas proceed with the execution of Scott Panetti on Wed­nes­day, Dec. 3, it will be ending the life of a man now better known for the manner in which he defended himself on trial than for the crime that put him on death row. Panetti was sentenced to death in Sept. 1995 for the 1992 murder of his estranged wife's parents, Joe and Amanda Alvarado, but the legal merry-go-round he's endured since being convicted has spun out over 19 years and multiple courts (including two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court), sparking national debate about the mental competence standard for executions.

Panetti, 56, had a long history of mental illness by the time he killed the Alvarados. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978, he was hospitalized more than 12 times between 1981 and 1992, and frequently acted out. In 1986, he slashed the walls of his home with a knife and buried furniture in his backyard in an attempt to exorcise advancing demons.

In the first days of September 1992, his wife Sonja, by then living with her parents, tried unsuccessfully to turn Panetti's guns over to the police after a fight between the couple. (The cops said they had no legal right to confiscate the firearms.) A few days later, Panetti shaved his head, dressed himself in military fatigues, and drove to Sonja's parents' house in Fredericksburg. There, he shot both Joe and Amanda Alvarado at close range with a rifle, and then ran off with Sonja and their infant daughter to a bunkhouse. Caught in a standoff with the police, Panetti released the two, and eventually surrendered, declaring that "Sarge" – later identified as a recurring auditory hallucination – was responsible for the murders.

After two hearings in 1994 to determine his mental competency, Panetti fired his attorneys and represented himself throughout his brief Sept. 1995 trial. He infamously dressed in a purple cowboy suit and subpoenaed upwards of 200 people – including Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and Anne Bancroft. He cross-examined his alter-ego ("Sarge"), scribbled ink over important legal documents and medical records, and at one point berated a prospective jury member about having "Indian blood." The trial lasted eight days. After two hours of deliberation, a jury found Panetti guilty and recommended capital punishment.

Immediate appeals of his conviction were denied, and in 2003 Panetti received an execution date of Feb. 5, 2004. His attorneys filed a motion for a stay of execution, claiming that their client was mentally incompetent to be executed. But two mental health experts appointed by Kerr Co. District Judge Stephen Ables declared that Panetti was, in fact, competent enough for death (Ables ruled Panetti had "the ability to understand the reason he is to be executed"). Upon review, federal District Judge Sam Sparks found the state court's reasoning "constitutionally inadequate" but ultimately ruled against Panetti, citing the 5th Circuit of Appeals' "test for competency to be executed," which requires a person "know no more than the fact of his impending execution and the factual predicate for the execution."

In 2007, Panetti's case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The majority determined that condemned inmates must have some "rational understanding" of why they're being executed, and sent the case back to the district court for a fuller consideration of Panetti's mental state. Judge Sparks ruled that Panetti was sane enough to be executed. A second appeal to the 5th Circuit proved unsuccessful in Aug. 2013. Early last month, the Supreme Court refused to consider a final appeal. A state district judge signed a warrant on Oct. 16 to set a Dec. 3 execution date. Panetti's attorney Kathryn Kase learned of the final decision when she read about it in the newspaper.

Kase filed an emergency court motion on Nov. 3, requesting that Panetti, who hasn't been evaluated in seven years, receive a final examination of his mental state. On Nov. 20, Kase and fellow attorney Gregory Wiercioch filed a motion asking that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halt Pan­et­ti's execution due to his incompetency. On Nov. 25, that motion was denied. In recent weeks, former congressman Ron Paul and former Texas governor Mark White (who oversaw 19 executions himself), in addition to many other health officials and Christian leaders, have stepped forward to oppose the execution. A petition started by Panetti's sister asking for clemency has accumulated more than 77,000 signatures. If their efforts are unsuccessful, Panetti will become the 12th inmate executed this year, and the 520th since the reinstatement of Texas' death penalty in 1976.

The Soffar Case

Meanwhile, the fight to save terminally ill death row inmate Max Soffar continues this month with the submission of a petition, containing over 116,000 signatures, asking Governor Rick Perry to release the 58-year-old. Soffar was arrested in 1980 for a Houston bowling alley murder of three teenagers, though his lengthy interrogation was notoriously aggressive and yielded only a limited audio recording. Soffar, who's long suffered from brain damage, and had the mental capacity of an 11-year-old when he was arrested for the murders, maintains that he did not actually rob the bowling alley or commit the execution-style murder, but mishandled his implicating of a friend in an attempt to receive a $15,000 reward. Soffar was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2013. In September, attorney Brian Stull reported that Soffar isn't expect to live past Feb. 2015, though he's yet to receive an execution date – 33 years after being arrested for the murder.

Rodney Reed

Supporters of Rodney Reed, who was scheduled to be executed on Jan. 14, 2015, came out for an evidentiary hearing in Bastrop on Tuesday, Nov. 25. Reed's lawyers have repeatedly sought additional DNA testing in the case – it's been widely speculated that Stacey Stites, whom Reed was convicted of killing in 1998, was actually murdered by her fiancé, former police sergeant Jimmy Lewis Fennell, who's currently serving a prison sentence for the 2007 kidnapping and rape of Connie Lear. The judge denied the motion for more testing, but rescheduled the execution for March 5, 2015.

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